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UK Sees Drop In Overseas Students Amid University Funding Crisis

Image courtesy of Emma Carmichael

With most of KCL’s students coming from abroad, fewer enrolments could leave the university “severely financially compromised.”

The number of overseas students enrolling at universities in the UK has dropped by a third, amid a funding crisis that could have repercussions for the economy of the country as a whole.

According to new research by Universities UK (UUK), which represents over 100 major universities and colleges, enrolments on postgraduate courses were down by over 40% since the government’s changes to student visa rules came into effect in January.

Although the number of international students applying to undergraduate courses has seen a slight increase, by about 1% compared to last year, most overseas students in the UK are on postgraduate courses. The concern is that overall, the numbers will have decreased, which could pose serious financial challenges for an industry that is already stretched and has become increasingly reliant on this source of funding.

The main cause behind the university funding crisis is the freezing of tuition fees at £9250, a figure which has not risen in line with inflation. This means that in real terms fees are now worth around £6000, which is taking a toll on university resources. While the problem in funding is clear, the solution is less so, with no consensus in parliament on the best way out of the crisis.

University leaders fear that recent legislation may have made the situation worse. Curbs on student visas announced last year by former home secretary Suella Braverman came into effect in January this year. With the subsequent drop in enrolments, institution heads have openly criticised the new rules which could affect such a vital source of income.

In a warning against the potential impact on higher education and the economy, the chief executive of UUK, Vivienne Stern, said: “I regret the fact the government appears to want to diminish our success in this area … If they go further, they will damage the economies of towns and cities throughout the UK, as well as many universities.”

At King’s College London (KCL), a significant drop in international students would be keenly felt. With more than half of students at King’s coming from overseas, the university is the 6th most international in the UK in percentage terms. The income this brings in the form of student fees now equates to almost a third of KCL’s total income, a figure that has doubled over the past four years.

This is partly because international students pay far more for their degree than their UK counterparts. For example, to study a three-year BA in International Relations at KCL, a domestic student would pay tuition fees of £9,250 per year, but this same degree would cost £27,996 per year for an international student.

As universities across the country struggle with funding due to frozen fees for UK students, this extra revenue has provided a welcome boost to KCL’s balance sheets. But an ever-growing reliance on this source of income, which is vulnerable to fluctuations in overseas demand, has raised concerns among university leaders.

KCL’s financial statement for 2023 said: “If there was a fundamental reversal in the trend of international student recruitment, King’s would be severely financially compromised … and would likely require a wholesale review of and significant changes to our strategy.”

 A spokesperson for KCL said that the university “[hasn’t] seen a drop in demand”. Roar has not yet been able to confirm whether the drop in students reported by UUK has affected KCL specifically.

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