December 5, 2023

Adam Habib, head of SOAS, criticized the UK higher education system for “exploiting” international students and told the International Higher Education Forum 2023 that the system was “broken in serious ways”.

Leaders from the international education sector discussed higher education’s dependence on international students during a two-day online conference organized by Universities UK International.

Jamie Arrowsmith, director of UUKi, told attendees that universities had “left the lights on” by recruiting international students and forging commercial partnerships.

“There is certainly a debate to be had as to whether the current approach is sustainable in the long term,” he said.

Habib argued that the model was morally and commercially “problematic”.

“We do not tolerate private sector companies having markups of 200/300/400%,” he said. “We say we want international students because of their cultural and social value, but I can tell you that nobody in the South really believes that.”

Catriona Jackson, CEO of University Australia, argued that while the sector had to consider ethics, “it’s also a market”.

“Students choose to go [to] the place where they think they will benefit the most,” she said, adding that it was “absolutely true” that some of those fees subsidized research, but that international students also participated in and benefited from university research.

“It doesn’t mean that we in Australia don’t have to look at it and try to balance it so that we’re not so vulnerable that the burden of that funding doesn’t fall on the shoulders of those students,” Jackson said.

Habib also argued that the UK should be “very concerned” about students’ dependence on India and China. 41% of UK international students coming from China and India in 2021/22.

“If the Indian government and the Chinese government were to turn off the taps to foreign students, what would actually happen is something like 75 to 80% of UK universities would collapse,” Habib said, describing it as a “tremendous risk”.

Panelists at the UUKi discussion on financial sustainability

Arrowsmith said there had been diversification “at a sectoral level” and that “there is widespread recognition of the risks of over-reliance on students from the single market”.

Steve Smith, the UK government’s international education champion, told the conference that there had been “extraordinary growth in new diversifying markets”, including India, Nigeria, Pakistan and the US.

“The appetite for involvement in the UK is absolutely tremendous,” said Smith, referring to his own work to promote UK education exports.

The panelists also discussed the problem of brain drain. With most students leaving the UK after their studies, Arrowsmith said we were seeing “brain circulation, not necessarily brain drain”, particularly at undergraduate and postgraduate level.

But Habib didn’t “buy it”, citing a study that found 80% of Indian students who went overseas were no longer in India five years later.

“I think brain drain is a terminology that has emerged in northern higher education systems to legitimize the amazing short-sighted agenda of draining talent from the south,” Habib said. He added that the brain drain prevents countries in the Global South from developing solutions to the local impacts of problems such as climate change.

“We do not tolerate private sector companies that have markups of 400%”

Jackson said the sector needs to be pragmatic in meeting the global appetite for education.

“Part of the reason we’re working so closely with India is because they’ve been so clear about what they want,” she said. “They want their country to be more productive and advanced.

“They want … millions of children to be educated in a really short period of time.” And they want our help in doing so.”

During the event, representatives also discussed the role of universities in responding to humanitarian crises. “Funmi Olonisakin, vice-president for international engagement and services at King’s College London, called for a “radical” shift to reach those in need, including providing “wholesale” education to lower-income countries.

“Give world-class education that will change the lives of those people on the ground, but train thousands of teachers, academics, but to teach in those places,” Olonisakin said.

“Are we going out of business? No, we’re not actually. We contribute and serve these companies by building quality that looks like ours because our campuses will still be full of students at the end of the day.”

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