UK universities have been told to expect a sharp fall in the number of new international students coming next year, including a loss of up to £460m in income from students from east Asia.

A new survey of international students by the British Council has found that nearly 14,000 fewer students from eight countries – including China, Singapore and Malaysia – are likely to come to the UK in 2020/21 in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

The decline of 20% in students from east Asia would amount to a 12% fall in overall international student numbers, causing a £460m loss of income from tuition and living expenses such as accommodation.

While the fall in student numbers appears smaller than some institutions are anticipating, one worrying sign from the survey is that nearly 40% of those coming from China – the UK’s biggest source of overseas students – have yet to decide.

“Prospective international students are facing a lot of uncertainty, but many are clearly trying to find a way to keep their overseas study plans,” said Matt Durnin, the author of a report for the British Council.

“There is a window of opportunity over the next two months to create a greater sense of certainty about the upcoming academic year. If responses are clear and quickly communicated to prospective students, UK higher education will face a much more manageable scenario.”

The survey of prospective students found that 29% said they were likely to delay or cancel their plans to study. A majority of postgraduate applicants said they would rather postpone the start of their studies until January 2021 than begin with online teaching in autumn, while 46% of undergraduate applicants agreed.

The British Council said its findings suggested the sector may take three or four years to recover from the shock of Covid-19. Some British universities are forecasting falls in international students of 50% compared with last year.

Michelle Donelan, the higher education minister, told a British Council summit on Friday that the UK government was “working very hard to ensure that international students do not have to jump through hoops to come here” and promised that immigration regulations would be “as flexible as they can be”.

Donelan announced that Sir Steve Smith, the retiring vice-chancellor of Exeter University, would become the government’s international education champion, with a brief to boost the numbers of international students as well as tackle what the Department for Education described as “concerns” over the global recognition of British degrees.

The University and College Union (UCU) said the British Council’s findings were further evidence that the government needs to provide universities with urgent financial help. A report for UCU in April warned that universities face a £2.5bn hole in their funding if both international and domestic students stay away in large numbers.

“The current wait-and-see approach from ministers is exacerbating the crisis for prospective students and putting tens of thousands of jobs at universities and in the wider economy at risk,” said Jo Grady, the UCU’s general secretary.

“Universities are focusing their efforts on trying to get as many students through their doors in September, yet they are refusing to listen to students in the UK and abroad who say they are worried about what their education will look like and even if their chosen institution can ride out the crisis.”

Source: theguardian

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