International Students’ Impact on UK Universities Research

The sources of funding for research carried out in UK universities are frequently required to be acknowledged openly. Research councils, charity organizations, and medical foundations are all well-known names. However, one type of contributor is absent from the lists found in newspapers, websites, structures, and endowed chair titles. 

A paper on cross-subsidization from teaching to research was issued by the Higher Education Policy Institute in 2020. Director Nick Hillman, who is typically candid about the financial realities of higher education, highlighted that UK university research is underfunded compared to its true expenses in a way that few, even within the industry, truly comprehended. The gap in the UK totaled £4.3 billion, with £3.7 billion in England and Northern Ireland accounting for a fourth of the overall expenditure.

So, how had universities stepped in to fill the void? The pricing structure for international students was the answer. After teaching costs are deducted, there is a surplus of more than £5,000 per student, which is used to fund not only the construction or renovation of facilities, but also the direct costs of the research that creates the research excellence and reputations that attract so many students to the UK in the first place. Currently, funders recover only around half of the cost of training a domestic PhD in the United Kingdom, and only 72% of the actual economic expenses of research.

At the very least, we should double-check our assumptions. To begin with, the budget gap is not static; it is expanding. University finances have been put under even more strain since the publication of the HEPI report. The current freeze in domestic tuition fees equates to another real-terms decrease, making them worth a third less than when they were first introduced in 2012: a level that frequently falls short of covering costs now. And now we’re dealing with the destructive effects of inflation, particularly in energy prices; the expense of maintaining the hot or cold conditions required for so much scientific research is rising at an ever-increasing rate. We should be conscious that if we wish to sustain UK university research production and quality, we may need to seek additional public funding.

Second, supply is contingent on supply. International costs, as well as the international stream of smart graduates that staff UK labs and research groups, are not guaranteed. The pandemic’s ongoing impact on China, as well as restrictions on Chinese students’ travel, warn us that international people movements can be disrupted.

On everything from visa charges and work placements to improved cultural understanding within mental health services and truly global career support, UK policymakers must incorporate the aspirations and voices of overseas students themselves. Embedding the International Student Charter, which the UK Council for Student Affairs is developing with students, would increase long-term engagement and response in the industry.

The United Kingdom is on track to meet its foreign student goal numbers, and its International Education Strategy wants to keep that momentum going. The primary intervention thus far has been to reinstate post-study work, which is a cross-departmental government program including not only the Department for Education but also the Department for International Trade and the Home Office. Throughout COVID, the government showed flexibility with regards to overseas students, which was critical.

The families in Beijing and Bangalore, Kigali and Kuala Lumpur who are willing to invest so heavily in their children’s education owe a debt of gratitude to those universities enjoying their achievement in this week’s Research Excellence Framework.

However, we must guarantee that our investment in UK university research continues to provide them with the best possible return on their investment.

It is time for us to speak up about our debt to international students. And our policy making needs to be more attentive to what they demand in return.