University of York’s decline in international students’ enrolment: A microcosm of UK higher education woes

This year, the reliance on international tuition revenue is increasingly pivotal for UK universities as they face the dual challenges of ongoing domestic tuition fee freezes and rising costs due to inflation, affecting both operations and program delivery.

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The University of York, a prominent UK institution, has recently become a focal point for observing trends in international student enrolment within the UK higher education system. In the context of diminishing interest from crucial non-EU student markets and escalating concerns about the dependency of UK universities on international tuition fees, York reported a significant 16 percent decrease in its international student population for the year 2023.

The university’s financial reports for the year underline a critical risk associated with the failure to sustain or enhance the diversity and number of international student admissions. They position escalating international student numbers as a crucial strategic goal to guarantee the university’s fiscal sustainability.

This year, the reliance on international tuition revenue is increasingly pivotal for UK universities as they face the dual challenges of ongoing domestic tuition fee freezes and rising costs due to inflation, affecting both operations and program delivery.

Reliance on China

York’s situation is a testament to these challenges. The university experienced a drop in full-time foreign enrolment from 6,145 students in the 2021-22 academic year to 5,185 in 2022-23, a 15.6 percent decrease. Correspondingly, revenues from international tuition saw a reduction from £102 million ($128,917,290) to £97 million ($122,621,095), a 5 percent decline.

Data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) reveals York’s significant dependence on China for its non-EU student body. In the 2021/22 academic year, Chinese students constituted 56 percent of the university’s international students.

The broader UK higher education sector mirrors this reliance on China. HESA data indicates that China was the leading contributor to UK higher education for the 2021-22 period. However, the Chinese market has been notably sluggish in its post-pandemic recovery, with indications of decreasing demand emerging even two years ago.

Phil Honeywood, CEO of the International Education Association of Australia (IEAA), highlighted the trend of students preferring to stay closer to home, affecting UK enrolment figures. He also pointed to the significant youth unemployment in China and the belated impact of Australia reopening its borders post-pandemic as influencing factors. Honeywood remarked that UK universities lost substantial enrollments from China and India because of Australia’s closed borders during the pandemic, with affordability, employability, and proximity being key factors favoring Australia recently.

“UK universities have lost a large number of enrolments from China and India for the simple reason that Australia’s national borders were closed for two years. Affordability, employability, and proximity are all pull factors that have favored Australia in the last two years,” he said.

January 2024 data from Enroly shows a marked decrease in Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies (CAS) issuance by 36 percent compared to January 2023, with deposits down by 37 percent. Although these figures represent significant year-over-year declines, they are not as drastic as earlier projections suggested.

Bid for diversification

In response to these challenges, the University of York’s annual report reaffirms its commitment to expanding and diversifying its international student base. However, the university faces additional hurdles, such as shifts in government policies, including a review of post-study work rights, and negative media coverage. A recent “cash for courses” report in The Sunday Times, which conflated international foundation programs with full degrees, drew widespread criticism.

Universities UK Chief Executive Vivienne Stern responded to the report, clarifying the distinction between International Foundation Years and full degrees. She emphasized that Foundation Years prepare students for degree programs without guaranteeing entry and are tailored to students from diverse educational backgrounds, including those with fewer years of prior education.

“The Sunday Times story fails to distinguish between entry requirements for International Foundation Years and full degrees,” Stern said. “International Foundation Years are designed to prepare students to apply for full degree programmes. They do not guarantee entry to them. They are designed for students who come from different education systems where, in many cases, students might have completed 12 rather than 13 years of education.”

“It must be understood that entry routes for international students will reflect the diverse countries and education backgrounds that these students come from, and that some will need bridging courses to enable them to progress to UK degrees,” Stern continued. 

This incident and the broader media coverage reflect a changing political and public attitude towards immigration and student mobility. Similar trends are evident in other major educational destinations and are likely to shape the strategies of educational institutions and recruiters going forward. 

The University of York’s experience encapsulates broader trends and challenges in the UK higher education sector regarding international student enrollment. With financial pressures, changing market dynamics, governmental policy shifts, and evolving public sentiment, UK universities, including York, are navigating a complex landscape that demands strategic adaptation and resilience.

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