Its report stated that UK universities are reliant on overseas students to the tune of £5.8 billion annually, of which £2.1 bn is estimated to come from Chinese students.
Since the mid-1990s the number of Chinese students in the UK increased 75 times over, and has increased by 36% in the last four years alone.
At 16 universities, Chinese students make more than a fifth of total fee income, rising to 28% at Glasgow, Liverpool and Sheffield.
“Universities have become worryingly dependent on [international students] for their finances”
“While overseas students generate valuable income and international focus on UK campuses, universities have become worryingly dependent on them for their finances, undermining their independence, credibility and long-term sustainability,” said the report’s author and Onward director, Will Tanner.
“Britain has never had a serious debate about the growth of overseas students. Yet the viability of the UK’s most prestigious universities – to say nothing of billions of pounds of science funding – is now decided not in parliament but in countries thousands of miles away,” he continued.
“Even more worrying is that a third of overseas funding comes from China, a country whose government has shown itself unafraid of threatening to cut student flows in response to criticism and whose commercial partnerships with UK universities are increasingly under scrutiny.”
Other top destinations such as the US and Australia have also expressed concern over Chinese international students for both financial and security reasons, while other destinations such as Canada have made diversification a priority in their higher education plans.
The report further found a correlation between the number of overseas students and the “crowding out” of UK students at top institutions.
As international student numbers have increased at places like Oxford and Cambridge, the number of UK students from state schools has decreased.
In a statement, the Russell Group argued that they have grown UK student numbers alongside international ones and that over three-quarters of their undergraduates are home students.
“We will continue to welcome the most talented students and staff regardless of nationality and are working with the government to maintain our standing as a globally attractive destination for students from the widest range of countries,” said Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group.
“The new graduate visa will help us compete for students from around the world including from countries like India and Brazil – and from Africa, which will be a significant market for quality higher education over the coming decade.”
While there have been calls for institutions to shore up their finances in case of a dip in Chinese student numbers, researchers at the Centre for Global Higher Education said the majority of Chinese students with offers in the UK still intended to study abroad as planned.
Based on information received from agents, they noted incoming students and their parents were more concerned about safety than geopolitical issues like Huawei’s 5G contracts in the UK.
“I think we also have to think about the wider global impact of these issues”
“Their common concerns were about the format of courses in upcoming academic year tuition fees, visa applications, English language tests and processional language courses,” said researcher Ying Yang of Manchester Institute of Higher Education.
Yang’s co-author and colleague, Jenna Mittelmeier, added that while international education is “always going to be linked with relationships between countries,” it was not the first concern “on the individual level”.
“But I think we also have to think about the wider global impact of these issues as well,” she added.
“The tensions between the US and China are going to have a run-off effect on how many students come to the UK instead of the US, for example. It will be quite interesting to see how it all turns out.”