Cautious optimism as students begin to arrive at UK university campuses

Nick Hillman, director of higher education think tank HEPI, told The PIE News that vice-chancellors are gaining confidence, and are not expecting a significant drop in numbers.

“[Vice-chancellors] are all sounding quite optimistic about student numbers”

“All the vice-chancellor’s I’ve talked to… they are all sounding quite optimistic about student numbers,” said Hillman.

“They seem to think the students are likely to arrive, not in absolutely every single case, but they are definitely, with every passing week, more optimistic than they were.

“I think that is most probably because, to a certain degree, real money is now changing hands, for example with international students booking their accommodation.

“They’re expecting to be somewhere close to last year’s figures,” he added.

Some international students are already arriving at UK university campuses, although the numbers are difficult to quantify because students are being offered flexible start dates.

The PIE has learnt that the University of Warwick has “several hundred overseas students” on its campus in their rooms who are halfway through two weeks of quarantine before their welcome week and start of term.

“Many others will, of course, be already quarantining in private sector accommodation off-campus. We won’t know full details in numbers for same weeks yet but this is a very encouraging indicator,” the university’s director of press and media relations, Peter Dunn explained.

Another HEI, Swansea University in Wales, has been running a meet and greet for international students who are arriving at Heathrow airport in London. 

A survey published in July revealed than three quarters (77%) of international student respondents said they would be willing to take part in quarantine programs if it meant commencing on-campus learning sooner. 

However, Universities UK has warned that the situation is still precarious.

“Recent data by IDP has indicated that more students are now expecting to commence their international studies as planned this autumn than was the case in April,” a UUK spokesperson told The PIE. 

“However, we must not be complacent, and there is still more to be done to ensure students have the confidence to pursue their plans to study in the UK.”

UUK explained that a big downturn in international student numbers would have a serious impact on university finances; international students bring more than £6.9 billion income to UK universities in tuition fees and contribute more than £26bn to the economy.

Earlier this month industry stakeholders told MPs during a meeting of the Science and Technology Committee that international students are worth £2 billion a year to research activities.

“Our research is only funded to 72% of the full cost. That’s been okay, as long as we’ve had international fees, residency [fees], commercial activities coming in,” said Nancy Rothwell, chair of the Russell Group.

“But the pandemic has opened up the Pandora’s box that we’ve all managed to keep the lid on for a while.”

Recent figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service have shown that applications from non-EU students are up by 2% in 2020.

However, Julia Buckingham, president and chair of UUK told the committee that “until we get to the point of enrolment, we won’t be able to say anything concrete”.

“There is still more to be done to ensure students have the confidence to pursue their plans to study in the UK

UUK said it has been working across the sector to understand and address barriers to students pressing ahead with their study plans. 

It is also working alongside the government to make sure that concerns about safety, the quality of the educational experience, and the mechanics of getting here are addressed, and to communicate proactively with prospective students.

A spokesperson for the Department for Education told The PIE that the government is supporting international students by making existing processes, such as for visas, as flexible as possible.

“[The government] is introducing a new graduate route to help students find work in the UK for two years after graduation from summer 2021, and is reviewing the International Education strategy to help the sector with the recruitment of international students,” the spokesperson added.

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