British universities were already in crisis before the pandemic. Will they survive Covid-19?

International students have become integral to plugging higher education's funding gap. Many are from China—and they're not likely to return anytime soon

May 11, 2020
A general view of University College London. The college was created as a secular alternative to the religious universities of Oxford and Cambridge and was founded in 1826. It is one of the most prestigious universities in the world and the largest in Lon
A general view of University College London. The college was created as a secular alternative to the religious universities of Oxford and Cambridge and was founded in 1826. It is one of the most prestigious universities in the world and the largest in Lon

Four weeks ago, my cousin fled the UK on a last-minute, one way ticket to China with a price so hiked up she refused to reveal what she paid. The seat had become available in the morning, and she was out of her University College London dorm by midday, leaving behind what she called "a dangerous Britain" with no plans to return.

She did so in the knowledge that a 14-day mandatory quarantine awaited her on the other side. Meals delivered to her hotel room in China included jackfruit, meat stew, curry and omelettes—all part of the small fortune she was paying for the pleasure of isolation. The government had hoped that strict quarantine measures would deter returnees and ward off a second wave of infections. But they did little to curb the students flooding back from around the world. In March, the biggest proportion of "imported" cases to China came from the UK, ahead of Spain and Italy.

As cases of Covid-19 soared across Europe—and as the British government floated a "herd immunity" strategy—the simmering panic among Chinese parents with children studying abroad boiled into full-on hysteria. Many feared their generous tuition fees were sending their only child—born out of the one-child policy—to early graves. My own uncle and aunt had the impression that the UK was feeding its people to the wolves. Even the prime minister couldn't stay safe. All around me, friends confirmed they had left the UK for China after being begged by their parents.

Before coronavirus, the UK was booming in Chinese students. With intensifying trade wars between America and China and a sliding British pound, more families in China have looked to the UK. 2019 brought a ten per cent rise in total non-EU international students—a third were from China. In the last six years, the UK has seen a 34 per cent jump in Chinese students. A Beijing-based friend started a business in 2016 helping secondary students get into universities in the US and UK. It was big money—parents paid for interview training, essay writing, university touring and year-round mentoring, on top of the paperwork.

It's not surprising that UK universities have become so reliant on China, particularly as non-EU international students can bring around three times as much in tuition fees. At Manchester University, one in eight students are now Chinese; at Liverpool, it's one in five. At the University College London, 15 percent of international students are Chinese (this figure includes those from the mainland and Hong Kong). Austin Williams, an associate professor at Kingston University who taught Chinese students at the Xi'an Jiaotong Liverpool University for six years, thinks that while a reduction of students from China due to Covid-19 won't lead to entire institutions collapsing, there will be "the closure of many courses."

Certain subjects like business and accounting have a particularly high proportion of Chinese students, and increasingly, so do subjects like media communications, given the rapid rise in new media, including the likes of TikTok and Chinese tech giants like Alibaba and Huawei. Many of these students are likely on Masters programmes. These are extremely popular among Chinese students as taught Masters here last only one year, unlike most other countries, and are much less competitive than those in China—where entry requires a separate entrance exam on top of undergraduate scores.

According to Kiya, a friend who has worked for a number of study abroad agencies in China, failing students can still get into a top UK university by either first enrolling in a foundation programme (usually for undergraduates) or a pre-Masters programme. These year-long pre-programmes have their own assessments, and are another good source of revenue for universities: tuition typically costs £20k. Students without the minimum English scores don't need to worry either, as many universities allow students to enrol in a summer language programme (which typically costs £2,000 for six weeks).

As Chinese families have gotten wealthier, studying abroad has become a common rite of passage for many. Gone are the days when parents would sacrifice everything so their struggling child could escape the domestic cutthroat schooling system. Today, the relative affordability of a foreign education means families don't have such high expectations on returns. A £30k tuition fee for a masters won’t break the bank for many single-child urban families. You don't even have to be middle class, especially when grandparents and relatives are willing to chip in. And contrary to what many Western idealists once believed, Chinese students aren't necessarily coming to the West to broaden their horizons, nor leaving more liberalised. Many are here for the "overseas education" stamp on their CVs, which makes them more employable in China.

A short, one-year degree is not only cost-effective for students, but offers a lucrative deal for universities. And this easy money has made UK universities complacent, says Professor Williams. Universities aren't educating students for education's sake anymore; it's more about "kowtowing to the students' demands for financial survival," he says, so that high-fee students keep coming year after year. There is currently an estimated £4.3 billion deficit in university research funding across the UK, which international students are helping to plug at £4,250 per head.

For now, it seems that higher education institutions will be hard hit by Covid-19 come the start of the new academic year this September. A survey by the British Council carried out between 27 March and 3 April found that 60 percent of Chinese students were either likely cancel to their plans for studying abroad next year, or were undecided about proceeding; just over a quarter said they were still planning to go ahead. Forty per cent of students already enrolled on a course—like my cousin—said they were unlikely to return, or undecided.

It is highly likely that many will delay their places until the following year, particularly with chances of a second winter outbreak. Even if British universities are open for business in September, many Chinese families will be much too worried about the safety of their children to risk sending them abroad, especially when students are still returning now and many have only just made it out of the 14-day quarantine period. Online learning may be a solution, but many students will see it as a waste to pay tens of thousands of pounds to study half of a one-year degree via lectures streamed over the internet.

According to Kiya, many may hold out for the coming academic year only if universities are willing to push back course start dates to January 2021. With English language tests IELTS and TOFL—tests required for entry into British and US higher education programmes—cancelled again this month, Kiya thinks that universities may be forced to accept predicted scores, as is the case with A-levels.

The Covid-19 crisis has forced Britain's universities to recognise the fragility of their funding systems, and even confront an existential crisis about their role: are they educators, or moneymakers? Those like UCL, which credit their rise in world rankings to becoming more internationalised, attract more students with better-funded teaching and upgraded facilities. In the future, unless institutions are willing to bend to pressures even further, they may feel their purses severely pinched. But faced with funding crises and huge deficits, many have little choice, in order to survive.