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Funding cuts in the higher education sector are driving more British universities to take larger numbers of international students.

As the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, takes gigantic chunks out of the public spending budget, universities have started to feel the squeeze. Places for home students are to be capped in an attempt halt the haemorrhaging of money from the sector.

The number of UK student applications rose by 5.5% between 2008 and 2009, with the number of domestic applications having risen by 44% over the last ten years to nearly 500,000 (UCAS).

In response to this belt tightening, UK universities are taking a larger bite from the international market to maintain financial growth. Britain is second only to the United States in terms of its international market share, taking 12% and 20% respectively. The international student market is worth approximately £3 billion a year to the Britain’s economy, with international students paying up to three times the tuition fees of their domestic counterparts. The UK higher education sector as a whole is a £25 billion a year industry.

Lyanna Asmadi, 20 and from Malaysia, is one such student. Asmadi is in the second year of an Accounting and Finance degree at UWE, as part of a twinning program with Taylor’s College, Subang Jaya, Malaysia.

“I think it is unfair for us international student to pay triple the price of the domestic student’s tuition fee. Though I believe that education plays an important role in life so for me, I think that the money spent on the education is worth it no matter how much it would cost.”

But are domestic applicants being squeezed out of their home universities in favour of more lucrative foreign students? In a word, no; but with times of fiscal austerity here to stay, the need for international cash can only become greater as cuts begin to bite.

WesternEye asked Vice Chancellor, Steve West, where UWE stands on stagnant domestic places and a rise in international intake.

“I have to look to the available markets, which are only the international, short course and part time sectors. While I don’t agree with the government policy of capping the number of domestic students and am concerned about reaching students who might not normally consider going to university, which is something we do very well with, I am capped at zero growth in the home market. The reality is, is that I don’t have a choice.”

UWE is at the lower end of the international student scale, taking just 5% of its students from outside the European Union. The average for UK universities is around 11%, with the upper end of the scale reaching as high as 20-25%.

“We are looking to build up to 10% over the coming years” said West.

Foreign students are a crucial part of the higher education financial model. A recent article in The Economist (‘Will they still come?’ Aug, 5th 2010) stated that universities in England subsidise domestic student revenue by charging students from outside the EU considerably more. Ergo, if foreign students are turned away, domestic students will either have to stump up more (the government is not going to any time soon) or accept a lower quality of education. Once again it would be students from less affluent backgrounds that would be penalised.

“I’m really proud of what we do in terms of widening participation. My big fear is that with the proposed government cuts, this will be one of the first things that will be in the firing line. That will be a massive failure.”

UWE Accounting and Finance undergraduate, Lyanna Asmadi

WesternEye was told that a number of schemes were being designed to accommodate a larger international market, but also to facilitate an expansion of the ‘knowledge exchange’ and that it is not a completely one-way street.

“We are looking at working with overseas universities to deliver course where the first two years are done in the student’s home country and the final year is done at UWE. We are also working that partnership in reverse, where our students can go and study in other countries, where appropriate. That for me seems like the right strategy in terms of the globalisation of knowledge and the knowledge economy” said West.

“Compared to Malaysian universities the UK universities offers many more educational resources and that will really help in my studies. I’m also looking forward to studying in a new environment, which will give me great opportunity in learning new things like the culture and people” Asmadi told WesternEye.

In 2009 UCAS received nearly 3 million applications from just under 700,000 applicants. Figures for 2010 are expected to be even higher. Acceptances from outside the EU reached 56,000 in 2009, roughly 11% of the total number of new students.

The two most populous nations on the planet, China and India, have flourishing middle classes despite the global economic downturn and provide a significant portion of the UK’s international students, 22% of all international students in 2008, up 32% from the previous year (The Economist).

In addition to the economic influx, students from Asia and South Asia are famously hardworking and diligent, something coveted by universities eager to climb the greasy academic pole. Emerging education markets are also nipping at the heels of the Anglo-American hegemony, Germany, Australia and Canada are all attracting larger numbers of foreign students than ever before.

“Before I made the decision to further my study in UK, I wanted to go to Australia. My main reason was because Australia is nearer to Malaysia so I can visit my family. But I realised that I prefer the British Education system and Malaysians have been taught in school for 11 years using the British system” Asmadi told WesternEye.

How 2010’s international student figures will be shaped by a handicapped domestic market and a thirst for outside capital remains to be seen. But one thing is certain; Britain is at the forefront of the international ‘knowledge economy’ and is showing no sign of relinquishing its place in the near future.