If overseas students stay away, universities can enrol more disadvantaged people

In the UK, international students’ tuition fees are a large part of universities’ budgets. Each international student pays an average of £5,100 more than it costs to educate them, with fees for undergraduate degrees ranging from £10,000 at the bottom end to £38,000 at the top. These higher fees, representing £7bn, account for a third of universities’ total income and are used to fill in lots of funding gaps, which means that it makes financial sense to recruit as many students from overseas as possible.

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This may finance academic salaries and enable important research, but it makes universities vulnerable to geopolitical shocks – and one of those has just happened on a seismic level: due to Covid-19, far fewer international students are expected to study in the UK than before.

Unlike in continental Europe, English universities are unlikely to be bailed out by the state since the tuition fee hikes have made them a largely private good, responsible for their own finances. While the funding picture is different in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, universities in these countries are suffering from a drop off in international students, too. Many universities across the UK are attempting to offset this drop through short-term measures such as hiring and promotion freezes. But these may not be sufficient in the long run to save all institutions or all staff.

And here lies the opportunity for creating a more open and more socially just system. There is one remaining group that universities can target to increase recruitment: domestic UK students who have lower grades, more complicated school trajectories, or have been out of education for some time. What about reaching out to these people rather than international students?

Looking beyond the “usual suspects” for university entry could benefit those who are typically excluded from higher education. This is because in the UK – as, indeed, in all OECD countries – those with wealthier parents tend to attend the best schools, where they typically achieve more highly, and then enrol in the most prestigious universities.

Researchers from Bristol, Oxford and Cardiff have found that students with lower grades than their peers can thrive at university. In this vein, the University of Edinburgh has removed required grades in place of lower minimum entry requirements. While many universities pursue the highest achieving students for their league table rankings, students with lower grades are absolutely capable not only of surviving but of flourishing at university. Indeed, American researchers found that it is these less traditional students who most benefit from enrolling in elite universities.

Of course, this must be done responsibly and ethically. Admitting students because they will help universities shore up their finances is not a great reason to ask people to spend three to four years in education. If universities are to increase the number of students who are the first in their family in higher education or otherwise disadvantaged, this must be accompanied by extra support to enable them to successfully complete their academic studies, participate in extracurricular and study abroad opportunities, and to compete on equal footing for employment or further study after graduating. Fortunately, widening participation teams in universities know about the challenges these students face and are in a position to put such packages in place.

It is right that much is written about the increasing inequalities caused by the Covid-19 crisis. However, I see a once-in-a-generation chance for universities to open their doors to more students and to regain some of their status and responsibilities as key players in society. Online learning in itself is an opportunity for widening access to students who have responsibilities which stop them participating in face-to-face higher education.

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Take the exanple of the university in my home town of Hamburg in Germany, which recently opened its doors to thousands of newly arrived refugees. Universities across Germany are rediscovering their social purpose by widening their student pool. This supports individual aspirations, equips the economy with skills and boosts social integration. Now it is time for UK universities to see Covid-19 as an opportunity for serving under-served sections of their own society.

Covid-19 may lead to universities that are more representative of UK society. With the disappearance of international students, a further social opening now makes business sense.

  • Anna Mountford-Zimdars is a senior lecturer at King’s College, London

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