Britain’s universities rely too heavily on tuition fees from Chinese students, according to a Conservative-backed thinktank that wants the government to replace them with increased funding for domestic students taking “high value” degrees.
The report by Onward, a thinktank supported by Tory MPs and donors, claims there are “well-founded fears” that China’s Communist party and its satellites have sought to undermine academic freedom and research on UK campuses, at the same time as lucrative international student fees have distorted the priorities of universities.
To tackle those concerns the report proposes a series of radical policies, including capping the income a university could earn from a single country and steering more UK students into courses with high graduate earnings, such as medicine, law, economics and sciences.
Will Tanner, the report’s author and a former special adviser to Theresa May as home secretary and prime minister, said: “Britain has never had a serious debate about the growth of overseas students. Yet the viability of the UK’s most prestigious universities, to say nothing of billions of pounds of science funding, is now decided not in parliament but in countries thousands of miles away.
“Even more worrying is that a third of overseas funding comes from China, a country whose government has shown itself unafraid of threatening to cut student flows in response to criticism and whose commercial partnerships with UK universities are increasingly under scrutiny.”
The report comes at a tense moment in UK-China relations, with Boris Johnson’s government last week saying it would ban the purchase of 5G telecoms gear made by Huawei from next year, while the UK is offering the prospect of citizenship to nearly 3 million Hong Kong residents after protests there.
Onward’s proposals also follow current government thinking on changes to higher education funding in England. The report suggests that ministers increase the teaching grants paid for domestic students taking high “value-added courses”, enabling universities to expand in those areas and lessen their reliance on international fees. At the same time so-called “low-value” courses could see their domestic student numbers capped, with one option tying student loan availability to graduate earnings.
One of the report’s complaints is that the rapid growth in international student numbers has “crowded out” domestic students at prestigious institutions. Instead, Onward recommends that universities’ ability to recruit overseas students should be connected to their growth in UK students.
But the Russell Group of leading research institutions, such as Cardiff and Manchester universities, rejected the claim that domestic students were being overlooked.
“Russell Group universities have grown UK student numbers alongside international numbers, and home students continue to make up over three-quarters of our undergraduates, who will be equipped with the skills to go on to success in whatever path they choose,” said Tim Bradshaw, the group’s chief executive.
“Students from around the world choose to study at British universities because of the high-quality education and experience they provide – this is a testament to our quality and should be seen as a success story.”
Last year more than 120,000 students from China were studying at UK universities, while official data shows UK students accounted for 77% of undergraduates at Russell Group universities. But Onward noted that the number of UK students enrolled at several institutions, including Oxford and Cambridge universities, Imperial College, and the London School of Economics, fell between 2014-15 and 2018-19.