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50+ universities cut jobs as overseas students stay away


More than 50 British universities have confirmed academic job losses as a volatile market for international student recruitment and stalled growth in income from home students forces higher education bosses to scrap or slim down less popular academic programmes, with arts and humanities bearing the brunt.

While most UK universities reported surpluses in 2022 to 2023 after several years of bumper recruitment of overseas students during and just after the COVID pandemic, the forecasts for this year and next are grim.

Student accommodation experts say international students are delaying booking their accommodation until the government shows its hand over threats to tighten student visas further, and growing uncertainty about the future of the post-study Graduate Route.

This has led to a warning from Universities UK that the number of study visas issued last year was down by 5.5% and that the government’s negative rhetoric and hostility towards foreign students is continuing to drive down demand to study in the UK among international students.

“Almost half (45%) of prospective students say they would reconsider their study destination if the post-study work offer was curtailed,” claimed a Universities UK spokesperson.

Sanam Arora, founder and chairperson of the National Indian Students and Alumni Union (NISAU) UK, echoed the warning, telling University World News: “70% of Indian students have told us that it is critical for them to be able to gain work experience in the country they study in after completing studies.”

Students are hedging their bets

Dr Janet Ilieva, founder and director of Education Insight, said more international students are hedging their bets and applying for student visas for several countries and leaving their final decision as to where to study until later in the recruitment and admissions cycle.

“So, the declines in the number of issued student visas (for the UK) understates the scale of declines that universities have been reporting,” she told University World News.

Ilieva also warned that last year’s financial health analysis from the Office for Students in England, which indicated “a deteriorating but comparatively healthy financial position” is now looking quite dated.

“Most of stable financial health was attributed to an expected increase in international fees and recruitment. We know this did not happen, which means the major source of growth is gone.

“We can also see that the recent increase in the international student population in the UK was at a postgraduate level, which accounted for 64% of international students in 2021 to 2022,” Ilieva said.

It is this market that saw the sharpest declines for the January intake, as University World News reported.

Fall in deposits

Before making the UK less attractive to foreign students, Ilieva urged the government to look at the Enroly data, which shows huge falls in the number of Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies issued and deposits for the January intake, particularly for one-year taught postgraduate degrees which were down by -70% for Nigeria and -33% for India compared with last year.

She and others in the higher education sector fear the government may cut, or scrap the Graduate Route, which has allowed 175,872 graduates to stay in the UK for two years to look for work since the scheme was re-introduced in 2021.

The post-study graduate work opportunities are currently under review by the Migration Advisory Committee, which will report back to Home Secretary James Cleverly on 14 May 2024.

Also expected in May are the latest migration figures as well as the much delayed 2022-23 figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, which will show whether the number of foreign students in the UK increased from its 2021 to 2022 peak of 679,970.

With many UK universities reporting losses through the teaching of home students as a result of tuition fees for English students being frozen since 2017 at a maximum of £9,250 (US$11,500), higher education institution have become reliant on tuition fees from international students, which are often two or three times higher than fees charged to UK students.

So, any large falls in international student numbers would threaten universities who have managed to keep their heads above water financially, despite fixed undergraduate home fees and rapid inflation.

Accommodation bookings down

There are plenty of reasons for concern, according to Daniel Smith, founder of the Student Housing Consultancy and Good Management Group, which helps clients with student accommodation investments.

He said that while Unite, a leading provider of student accommodation in the UK, is only down 4% in bookings this year, it is focused on Russell Group university locations which are generally the most popular with Chinese students.

Some other operators “serving ‘tier 2’ universities are up to 40% down” compared with bookings for last year, he said.

Posting on LinkedIn, Smith said: “From conversations with marketplaces it seems international students are delaying booking their accommodation on cost, but there is also reticence due to the government’s hostile stance on international students.”

He agreed that “international students are hedging their bets” and that Chinese students, in particular, “are applying to multiple countries and multiple universities”, adding: “The good news is that with immigration curbs in Canada, Australia and the potential of Trump resuming the US presidency, the outlook is uncertain for international students globally, not just in the UK.”

Redundancy packages

All this uncertainty is encouraging university bosses in the UK to press ahead with plans they probably had in store to axe less popular courses and introduce redundancy packages for affected staff, as well as offering early retirement inducements to staff who have had enough of falling academic pay and increased workloads.

Several thousand academic and administrative posts have been lost, or will be lost in the next few months, as universities run down less profitable programmes, according to a live website page tracking the redundancies and the fight back.

The site, called “UK HE Shrinking” is run by the University and College Union (UCU) branch at Queen Mary University of London.

By 25 April 2024, it had recorded the axing of programmes and redundancies announced at 52 British universities.

Some courses have been spared after teaching staff belonging to the UCU threatened strike action, including modern languages at Aberdeen University and the University of Kent.

However, other strike ballots are underway at several universities, while some UCU branches are relying on petitions to try to save courses or are working with management to avoid compulsory redundancies by agreeing new working practices.

Arts and humanities at risk

Arts and humanities appear at greatest risk from the cuts being announced, or in the pipeline, according to the “UK HE Shrinking” union tracker, which also reports research time being slashed across the sector.

While English and modern languages were spared the chop at the University of Kent, courses set to go include art history, music and audio technology, philosophy, religious studies, anthropology, health and social care, and journalism.

That’s not all. Kent’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Karen Cox has announced she will step down in May, leading UCU general secretary Jo Grady to say: ‘Vice-Chancellor Karen Cox looks like an arsonist trying to flee the scene now that her resignation has been announced.”

Other “early retirements” among university heads are expected.

At Goldsmiths, University of London, the UCU claims 130 posts are at risk, a number disputed by management, but departments affected include anthropology, English and creative writing, history, music, psychology, sociology, theatre and performance and visual cultures, with some losing half of their staff, according to the UCU.

Michael Rosen, the broadcaster, former children’s poet laureate and professor of children’s literature, who has worked at Goldsmiths for 10 years, has described the threat of mass redundancies as “unbearable”.

Priyamvada Gopal, a professor of postcolonial studies at the University of Cambridge, told The Guardian: “The redundancies announced by Goldsmiths management is a horrifying act of cultural and social vandalism, one which will devastate the study and teaching of the humanities not just in this institution, but Britain more generally.”

Northumbria University in Newcastle was planning to slash its staffing costs by £12.5 million, but the UCU said it had faced down threats of compulsory redundancy.

Southampton bucks the trend

The list of job losses goes on and on, but one university bucking the trend is Southampton University, which has recently announced it is appointing 180 new academics by 2025.

Professor Phillip Wright, senior vice-president (academic) at the University of Southampton, told University World News: “Our academic recruitment campaign represents a real investment for the future and supports our ambitions to grow in both size and shape across education, research, knowledge exchange and enterprise.

“Sound financial management, our growing reputation, and a clear strategy means we’ve been able to emerge strongly post-pandemic, despite the challenges faced across the sector.”

He said the university had focused on providing a high-quality student experience and was making the investment “without needing to make cuts to the courses on offer”.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com