Britain's reputation as a global education powerhouse could be threatened by a squeeze on government funding, a Financial Times survey suggests.
That in turn could deepen the sector's woes by making it harder to recruit foreign students who are a big moneyspinner for cash-strapped institutions, say vice-chancellors at a cross-section of UK universities.
Tim Wheeler, vice-chancellor of Chester University, which is competing for more foreign students, said: “There is a lot of recent adverse [press] coverage about cutbacks in English universities and it has certainly played into the hands of the American, Australian and Canadian universities.” All three countries vie with England in the battle for international students.
Paul O'Prey, vice-chancellor of Roehampton University, said Britain was “uniquely well placed” to attract foreign students but “the real risk is that the messages about universities in the media could create damage abroad”. He said: “I think people have to be careful about not talking downone of the major export success of the UK.”Simon Gaskell, principal of Queen Mary, University of London, said: “I think it's going to be very difficult, but not impossible, for individual institutions to continue to transmit a very positive message about their own higher education and research provision, when the UK is apparently devaluing the importance it attaches to higher education.” News of the funding cuts sent a “pretty stark” message abroad.
International scholars – those from outside the European Union – are particularly important because they can be charged a market rate. Fees for EU undergraduates, by contrast, are capped at £3,225 a year, though postgraduate fees are not regulated.
The government also considers income from foreign students to be increasingly important to the economy. Gordon Brown said this month that “education will be perhaps our biggest export in 20 years” and cited universities specifically.
The survey of more than 21 universities found that 17 planned to recruit more international students to offset the funding cuts.
Moreover, 12 said they would increase the fees charged to unregulated students, while many others were actively considering it. Many aimed to exploit the weak pound by raising fees by up to 10 per cent.
Graham Henderson, vice-chancellor and chief executive of Teesside University, said he planned to continue to develop the university, but increasing full-cost international student numbers were essential to this. He hoped to increase the number of international students by 50 per cent over the next two years to 1,500.
Prof O'Prey of Roehampton said overseas revenue was crucial to maintaining growth. “Where else is growth coming from? If universities are going to survive this recession they have to find ways of growing non-regulated, non-governmental income.”
Universities will receive £4.7bn for teaching in 2010-11 from the government-funded Higher Education Funding Council for England, a 1.6 per cent decrease in real terms after allowing for 2 per cent inflation. However, most institutions surveyed are preparing for an overall 15 to 20 per cent cut in government funding over the next three years.
Several smaller universities said they were considering mergers. Many institutions expected to reduce staff numbers to meet the reduction in revenue.