Opinion | The University’s reliance on international student’s fees will hit finances hard, but it is students who will lose the most


With the start of the next academic year around the corner, Universities are bracing themselves for the huge financial loss of losing most of their international cohort. But how did the problem come to be this devastating?

As the shockwaves from Covid-19 continue to reverberate around the economy, UK Universities are preparing for the return of students to a socially distanced campus, leaving many students apprehensive, confused and with an inbox full of emails about ever-changing rules and policies.

However, it seems that the heaviest hit is yet to come. A report published by the London Economics for the University and College Union found that universities faced a £2.5bn ‘black hole’ of lost tuition fees largely due to the absence of many international students who will not be arriving in October.

The heaviest hit is yet to come

Many students at Bristol come from overseas and account for a huge chunk of the University’s population. The fallout from Covid-19 is predicted to halt most international travel for the foreseeable future. As a result of this, many returning international students are faced with the decision of whether to come back to the UK, while many prospective students may have to cancel their enrolment entirely.

My initial thought upon hearing this was one of sadness. In my first-year halls I met and made friends with people from a variety of places, and the thought of a campus without international students seemed void and gloomy.

However, it was to my amazement that I found that the problematic relationship between international students and University finances is one that long predates the chaos of Covid-19.

Granted, no one could have predicted the interference of a global pandemic, however the collective failure of Universities to realise their over-reliance on international fees has set them on the path to self-destruction.

The problematic relationship between international students and University finances is one that long predates the chaos of Covid-19

As October looms, it seems increasingly likely this dilemma will be on a collision course with Bristol University’s finances, leaving the it with no choice but to duck for cover and hope that their surpluses will be enough to protect them from the worst of the damage.

The government recently announced that they will be lifting the cap on admissions for certain courses after the backlash of the A-Level results debacle. Both prospective students and University executives must have breathed a sigh of relief.

The opportunity to increase this year’s intake of UK students is much needed to compensate for the gap left by international students no longer coming to the UK. But will it be enough?

At all Universities, international students expect to pay considerably more than UK and EU nationals. Bristol recently announced that international fees for 2021 entry will soar to a minimum of £20,100 for undergraduates. My question is: ‘What for?’

In a document published by the University titled ‘How are my fees spent?’, it states that the disparity in fees is due to the fact that it does not receive money from the Higher Education Funding Council for international students. This, therefore implies that, ‘their fees have to cover the full cost of their education’.

I couldn’t help but feel strangely fortunate yet incensed that I would be entitled to the same education for almost a quarter of that price

However, a 2018 report by Hepi (Higher Education Policy Institute) disputes this; it found that international students pay an average of £5000 more than it costs to teach them.

At best, this sounds like over-reliance on one stream of yearly income. At worst it sounds like exploitation of students’ desire to have a high quality education.

In the words of the National Union of Students, they are treated like ‘cash cows’. Yet it is often forgotten that their fees too, are subject to change in times of economic downturn, recession and yes, even global pandemics.

As I stared open-mouthed at a webpage which informed me that aspiring overseas medics would be charged an eye-watering £33,500 next year, I couldn’t help but feel strangely fortunate yet incensed that I would be entitled to the same education for almost a quarter of that price. This, for no reason other than being lucky enough to have a British passport.

Some may think it justified and others may not. Debates about nationalism and citizenship rights can be had another time. What has become blatantly obvious in the meantime, is that international students are effectively at the mercy of the University’s changing fees and stand to be the hardest hit by this crisis.

Ultimately, the problem is far more extensive than a financial loss. The presence of international students on campus is very much an integral part of student life. They are represented across every faculty and school, in our research departments, teaching staff and SU societies.

The talent and diversity of international students are equally as impactful as their fees, and the potential hole they may leave will be felt in all areas of University life.

The University’s safety blanket has fallen through. As they scramble to resuscitate their business model, students wait with trepidation for them not to make the same mistakes again.

Featured Image: LucyO'Neill / Epigram

Are you an international student who will be returning back to Bristol? Let us know.