Could surge in EU student recruitment mean crisis for UK student finance?


Along with rising tuition fees and the inclusion of international students in net migration targets, the 2014 removal of the cap on student numbers became one of the hottest topics for discussion regarding the UK’s higher education system.

Last year, the UK’s student recruitment cap was raised by 30,000, and, starting from this year, universities have been granted the power to recruit as many students as they like. Describing the original restriction as a “cap on aspiration”, First Secretary of State, George Osborne, claimed that lifting the cap would enable a further 60,000 to go to university, providing they had achieved the necessary grades.

Following the lift on the cap, in March this year, The Guardian conducted a survey to find out which UK institutions planned to take advantage of the new funding rules, and discovered that almost half of higher education institutions in the UK planned to increase their student cohort over the next five years, some by as much as 50 percent.

Of the 70 universities that responded to The Guardian’s survey, 32 were already set to recruit an unlimited number of both domestic and EU students, 29 had no plans to expand, while 9 were still contemplating their procedure.

Five Russell Group Universities announced plans to increase undergraduate student numbers, including; Queen Mary University of London and the Universities of Sheffield, York and Newcastle.

Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Durham, Exeter, Imperial, King’s College London, the London School of Economics and Political Science, Manchester, Oxford and Warwick Universities said they had no plans to expand, whilst some, such as Bristol, announced their student population had already grown significantly.

A number of universities announced incredibly ambitious plans, such as the University of Essex, who proposed a 50 percent increase in their student body by 2019 (including overseas and postgraduate intake) and this year, the institution admitted a further 5,000 students. Others, for example Oxford Brookes, limited their undergraduate increase to 1 or 2 percent per academic year.

The question is; with all these universities dramatically boosting their undergraduate population, how will the UK’s higher education funding system cope with such significant increase in demand?

UCAS data has demonstrated that, just five days after the publication of this year’s A Level results, universities in the UK had accepted 20,430 EU students from outside the UK, 14 percent more than they had recruited by the same date last year.

Perhaps this represents a common trend, since in 2014-2015, EU recruitment into UK universities stood 8 percent higher than the previous academic year.

On the other hand, application of domestic students into UK universities has slowed down significantly.

Data uncovered by UCAS showed that, this year, 668,460 people (excluding Scottish teacher training courses which were included in the scheme for the first time this year) applied for full-time undergraduate courses by 30th June, the deadline date for the main route of application.

This figure represents a 1.5 percent increase on the numbers for 2014, when a total of 658,880 students applied for university. This figure means that growth in domestic students has slowed significantly, since the figure from 2014 showed a 3.7 percent increase on the previous year.

UCAS’s Chief Executive commented that: “Lifting the cap on HE places doesn’t produce more human beings with the potential to succeed in HE”.

It is this absence of growth in the domestic student market that has led UK universities to drive for EU student applicants.

Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, told Times Higher Education that “a lot of drivers mean this growth is expected to continue in the next few years.

“There are push factors, in that people want to study in a good university system, and pull factors, which are partially financial, because universities can fill their places and these are full £9,000-paying students.”

One of the “push” factors Mr Hillman describes is the number of courses on offer for overseas students. Research by The Telegraph found that the UK’s international student population can choose from 15 percent more courses than the country’s own domestic students.

In 2013, The Telegraph analysed courses advertised by more than 160 institutions through the clearing system run by UCAS; they found that two weeks after the country’s A Level results were released, 19,996 courses were still available for overseas students, compared with the 17,398 open to British students.

The data demonstrated that 40 of the UK’s higher education institutions had more courses available to their international student cohort.

However, many critics argue that foreign students are being used as “cash cows” to boost the income of these institutions during an economic struggle, due to the fact that many international students are charged higher fees than their domestic student counterparts. For example, some pay £35,000 for a medical degree, while their British classmates maintain the £9,000 fee.

A representative from the University and College Union claimed that foreign students bring “much to UK academia and the country as a whole,” before adding, “They should be encouraged to study over here, never simply because they have to pay more for the privilege.

“The government needs to look careful[ly] at what the policies have meant for students both at home and from abroad and our universities.”

Many continue to welcome the increased diversity across the UK’s HE campuses, but with such significant growth in recruitment comes growing concern regarding the impact it will have on the UK’s student finance scheme.

In the past, it has proven to be difficult to secure tuition fee repayments once overseas students finish their studies and decide to leave the UK.

Recent research by the UK’s Student Loans Company showed that 10 percent of EU borrowers who were studying at a HE institution within the UK had provided no details of their income, which in turn, led them to be places in arrears. The company was reportedly still seeking information from 16 percent of students who were yet to make any repayments.

The amount owed by EU students attending English universities stood at £343.6 million in 2013-14, a staggering 634 percent increase on the previous four years.

Mr Hillman told Times Higher Education that it could be time for the UK to set up bilateral loan collection arrangements, in which the only two parties involved would be the borrower and the lender. He also suggested that the nation should adopt a similar model to New Zealand, in which foreign graduates are forced to pay commercial interest rates upon leaving the country, and if in arrears, the student faces confiscation of their passport should they return to the country.

Hillman says: “This is a problem, and if there are more EU students the scale of the problem will get bigger.

“I’m not suggesting that we have a system where we start snaffling people’s passports away, but at the moment we have a system that is definitely too lax.”

Image via Shutterstock.

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