Category Archives: universities

Is international student mobility socially regressive?

Campuses at universities in England are becoming increasingly cosmopolitan and students welcome this. But is there a cost and does the cost matter?

The problem

At any one time there is a fixed number of undergraduate places. If universities recruit more international (that is non-EU) students, this logically implies fewer domestic and EU students.

But why would any university recruit international over domestic students? Because they can be charged a lot more. At Bristol University international science undergraduates pay £18300pa. No domestic under-graduate can be charged more than £9000pa.

As most international students come from countries poorer than the UK we can infer that, on average, international students are among the wealthiest in their home countries.

There are exceptions – there are bursaries and some families impose severe sacrifices on themselves for their children’s benefit. But these are exceptions.

In addition (and on average) international students are wealthy by UK standards as well. How can we know this? First, the level of international student fees is much higher than would be deemed acceptable for domestic students. Second, while domestic students re-pay their tuition fees over a long period of time after graduation, international students pay up-front.

But what exactly is bad about all this?

International student mobility might merely give more opportunities to the already-advantaged at the expense of the less-advantaged. This would unfairly increase inequality.  

And this is not just a parochial concern for those who care only about students in England. You might think borders are irrelevant, that we are ‘global citizens’ and – to adapt a phrase of Thomas Rainborowe’s – that the most distant he has as much a life to live as the nearest he.

But if you are worried about fairness and equality globally then the focus of international student recruitment should be the poor(er) of India, China etc. But, as has been suggested above, poorer students are unlikely to be internationally mobile.

Things are not quite this simple

Two possible replies should be considered. First, over time the number of undergraduate places is not fixed. The income derived from more international students can be used to increase the number of places for domestic students. Second, there are other benefits to international student mobility that might compensate for it (where it is socially regressive). Let’s take the second point first.

Fairness and equality are not the only things of value. Economic growth matters – and you might thing that international student mobility leads to a more efficient allocation of labour. Equally, people’s freedoms matter – and you might think that freedom of movement is morally weightier than other values.

In short, lots of things can compensate for socially regressive international student mobility. It all depends on how values are ranked. But ranking values is complex – far too complex a topic for this blog. We will focus on the first point.

Boosting domestic student numbers

The income from international students can be used to increase places for domestic students. But is it? The mere possibility of something happening does not imply that it does happen.

And how many extra places for domestic students are necessary to justify more international students? If ten extra places were created and only one went to a domestic student we might infer that this extra student is a fig-leaf to cover a department’s material immodesty.

Policy implications

Here’s another option: if universities in England charge fees of over £6000pa to domestic students they are required to spend a proportion of that income on programmes that aim to increase university access to groups who, historically, have not benefitted from it. Why not have an international widening participation scheme?

Let’s say that, for every student a university recruits from India, 10% of the fee income is invested in a suitable education programme in India for the educationally disadvantaged. If international student mobility is socially regressive, this would go some way to off-set it.

Embracing this idea may even help universities recruit international students. (‘Come to University X and some of your fees will be ploughed back into your own country’s education system.’)

More pointedly, the degree to which universities embrace this idea would help us determine whether international student recruitment really is part of their educational mission or merely a cash cow.