Leading UK universities reliant on Chinese tuition fees

By Minh Nga   May 13, 2024 | 08:05 pm PT
Leading UK universities reliant on Chinese tuition fees
A Chinese student in Britain in 2021. Photo by Reuters
Chinese students contribute around three-quarters of all postgraduate tuition fee income at some of the top universities in the U.K., according to a consortium of research-intensive universities.

An article by British magazine Times Higher Education (THE) has reported that Russell Group universities earned approximately £8.8 billion (US$10.9 billion) in tuition fees during the 2021-22 school year, which starts in autumn of 2021 and ends in summer of 2022, with £2.3 billion (26%) of the funds coming from Chinese students.

This marks a significant increase from £550 million (12%) in 2014-15, making China the universities’ largest source of tuition fee income, by far, contributing nearly seven times more than the next biggest market, India.

The proportion is expected to have risen even further over the 2022-23 school year.

The Russell Group is a self-selected association of 24 public research universities in the U.K.

The analysis combines Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) data on enrollments, excluding Scottish students, with fee averages from databases held by THE.

It reveals that many top research-focused institutions have become two or even three times more reliant on Chinese tuition fees over the last decade or so.

In 2021-22, Chinese students accounted for 40% of University College London’s total fee income, up from 14% seven years earlier. Other universities with significant Chinese student contributions include Southampton (38%) and Sheffield (37%).

In contrast, the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge are among the least dependent on Chinese tuition fees, with only 11-12% of their income coming from China.

Amid frozen domestic tuition fees, leading U.K. universities have increasingly turned to international students to address funding gaps. As a result, they continue to recruit heavily from China.

The dependence on China is especially pronounced at the postgraduate taught level, where Chinese students are thought to be responsible for 52% of the Russell Group’s tuition income, said the THE report.

This figure is as high as 79% at Southampton, 71% at Sheffield, and 67% at Manchester.

James Keeley, an honorary associate at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, cautioned that relying on "easy money" makes the sector vulnerable to sudden changes in relations or economic instability in China.

Vincenzo Raimo, an independent international higher education consultant and visiting fellow at the University of Reading, noted that over-reliance on a single country could negatively impact the student experience. "While [universities] recognize the risks of over-dependence and highlight it in risk profiles, the bigger risk is a fall in international tuition fee income this year," he said.

Mark Corver, university data site dataHE's managing director, emphasized the risks posed by relying too heavily on China. He warned that treating postgraduate education primarily as an income source could lead to courses being tailored to high-paying students rather than aligning with strategic academic goals.

He also highlighted the potential long-term effects of neglecting postgraduate education for U.K. students.

"With postgraduate taught income from U.K. students probably only a quarter of that from China alone, attention to postgraduate provision for U.K. students, often the first stage on a research career, may suffer. This matters as U.K. students are more likely to form part of the research base in 10 or 20 years' time and an income-driven focus now may be storing up capability problems for the future."

According to Universities U.K. (UUK), an organization of higher education institutions, in 2021-22 there were 679,970 international students studying in the U.K. Some 120,140 of these were from the EU and 559,825 were non-EU.

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