Is Britain’s higher education brand at risk?

“Both short and long-term financial planning could bolster Brand Britain’s higher education offering”

Competition is fierce in the global industry built on attracting international students into higher education. And it’s little wonder.

Recent financial forecasts have predicted that the spending associated with international students is set to increase from an estimated US$196 billion in 2019 to $433 billion by 2030.

When universities across the world are still recovering financially from the additional investments they made during the pandemic, the fees income overseas students bring in can provide a much needed buffer against budgetary shortfalls.

With so much at stake, protecting this revenue is a key priority for the sector.

But encouraging students to consider a university beyond their home shores has become much more of an uphill challenge when set against the backdrop of the political and economic uncertainty currently sweeping across many parts of the world.

The winds of change are blowing a gale in the worldwide higher education marketplace and the impact on overseas student numbers remains to be seen.

New world order

New rules on international students are being implemented in many parts of the world international students often consider as destinations of choice.

In Australia, there are calls for the government to extend the time an overseas student must spend at a university before they are permitted to switch to another institution, which currently stands at six months. The aim of the move is to reduce the risk of students being poached from one institution to another and also to slow attrition rates overall.

Canada is looking at enhancing its current policy on international students to encourage the highest quality graduates to remain and work for longer once their studies are complete.

Meanwhile, in the UK, there is growing speculation over what the future might hold as the government considers restricting the number of international students permitted to bring dependents with them, in order to bring down net migration.

The quality of higher education in the UK has typically been a key reason why overseas students regard it as among the top destinations for international students from across the world. There could be a considerable financial fall out from losing this status as a result of global competition – and not just for smaller institutions.

Rising cost of living

The Russell Group of universities recently reported that the average financial deficit attached to every home grown undergraduate is set to more than double from £1,750 in 2021/22 to around £4,000 in 2024/25.

Fees income from international students will be essential to help address some of this shortfall, but the UK’s higher education sector may need to take a fresh approach to financial planning to address new challenges.

The rising cost of living has meant that the factors students may have considered as priority in the past have changed. Everyday costs for accommodation and household bills are considerably higher, for example, and the vast majority of these students are not eligible for the same levels of government support as their UK-based peers.

The cost-of-living impact can be seen in rising energy prices too. Students moving into private accommodation are likely to be hit by energy cap packages with higher fixed rates as government support comes to an end and these additional costs put pressure on universities to provide more support.

Continuing investment in student wellbeing and support services should be factored in too so that budgets already earmarked for mental health and post-Covid recovery are not at risk of outstripping demand.

Planning for change

Both short and long-term financial planning needs to be injected into the sector’s strategy in the months and years ahead.

The difference this could make to the continuing success and strength of Brand Britain could be game-changing and if universities get it right, there could be more financially buoyant times just over the horizon.

About the author: Iain Sloan was formerly student systems development manager at Oxford Brookes University and is now senior solutions consultant at Ellucian.