Are we losing valuable progress?Louis Ashworth with permission for Varsity

In late March, the Times reported that leading UK universities (including Oxbridge) now “get most of their fees” from international students. The news followed a Sunday Times investigation into a ‘cash for courses’ controversy, which uncovered how Russell Group universities use foundation courses as a ‘back door’ for enrolling wealthy, underperforming international students at the expense of home students with higher grades.

This situation hasn’t come from nowhere. Universities have faced a decade-long decline in the real value of fixed home student fees. To keep themselves from financial ruin, they have had to turn to international students, whose fees are uncapped and can pay nearly three or four times as much as their domestic counterparts. Nevertheless, the reports have provoked anger, with money appearing to erode the academic integrity of our higher education system. The sector’s global status is at stake. In a report in March, the Economist indicated that UK universities are losing ground to the rest of the world by research reputation and levels of academic citation, particularly to Chinese institutions such as the Peking and Tsinghua universities.

“Money is eroding the academic integrity of our higher education system”

Before going any further, it is important to clear up some potential misunderstandings. This is a topic that generates much more heat than light, and nuance can easily be lost. These developments should not in any way prejudice us against international students themselves. They have much to offer us, and their contribution is key to why Cambridge and other elite UK universities are institutions of global standing. In all the fuss about academic integrity, we risk forgetting the challenges they have overcome (rigorous language requirements, for one). In a toxic political atmosphere – international students add to overall migration numbers, a bogeyman the Tories have reacted to with moves such as heavy restrictions on work and dependent visas – we have a duty not to let concerns over the fate of our universities slide into xenophobic smears.

There is another key point to remember here. Universities are not recruiting more international students because of any ingrained bias against home students. They are doing so primarily because, given their precarious finances, they have to. International fees fund places for home students, and so reducing international student places does not necessarily free them up for home students. This is not a zero-sum game.

“The sector’s global status is at stake”

However, our universities’ overdependence on foreign fees does present us with serious problems. A concern just as, if not more serious, than compromised academic standards are the socio-economic imbalances these developments entail. To put it plainly: international student numbers are increasing, and only very wealthy people can afford international fees. UK universities have virtually no financial aid to speak of for overseas undergraduate students. It is also worth noting the myriad of agencies that have sprung up to serve this elite market. Innocuously named tutoring and recruitment companies – ‘Kampus Group’, ‘Zain Global’, ‘Study Group’ – now charge exorbitant fees to train international students for the British application process, and effectively serve as a pipeline into the universities themselves. Although these agencies possess no silver bullet to admissions, their services can still inspire a confidence in their clients – critical, say, for interviews. Some agencies, such as Study Group, even maintain partnerships with certain universities and help run their newly notorious foundation courses. The upshot of all of this? A growing proportion of students at UK universities come from uber-wealthy backgrounds, hailing from the elite echelons of their home countries.

“Can our universities remain both global and equitable institutions?”

It is difficult, to put it mildly, to square these developments with the Access and Outreach work universities like Cambridge do under the government’s ‘Widening Participation’ policy. Such socially exclusive trends directly counteract these initiatives. It is all very well for colleges such as Caius to redress imbalances in their intake between state and private schools, or for Vice-chancellor Deborah Prentice to visit the North West and call for Cambridge’s admissions to be less ‘London-centric’. But these efforts ring hollow when there are strong financial incentives pushing Cambridge and other UK universities in the opposite direction, towards a more socially elite student demographic.


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Ultimately, we should celebrate that, despite Brexit and the Tories’ best efforts, Cambridge and other top UK universities are still global bodies of higher learning. They represent some of the last truly unique, distinctive offerings this country presents to the world. But financially, our higher education sector is in a bad way right now. This leaves us with an intractable dilemma. The real tension is not between foreign fees and academic standards, but between foreign fees and a fair socio-economic balance. Can our universities remain both global and equitable institutions? It is hard to see how.