Schools have already lost millions of pounds thanks to enforced closures under lockdown, and things could get worse still.
“British universities are under very severe strain from the crisis,” Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) think tank, told AFP.
The national lockdown that forced universities to shut in late March has cost £790 million ($990 million, 909 million euros), according to representative body Universities UK (UKK).
And the next academic year could be even worse if international students, who pay higher tuition fees, stay away or are hit by movement restrictions.
“The potential impact is extreme,” said UKK, which has asked the government for £2 billion in aid.
Without it, they warned that some institutions risked having to cut back sharply or risk closing together.
Britain is the second-most popular university destination for foreign students after the United States. In 2018-2019, one in five pupils in the country came from overseas.
Of a total of 485,645 overseas students, nearly 343,000 came from outside the European Union. Of those, 120,385 came from China.
International students are a financial lifeline for British universities, often paying twice as much as the £9,250 a year in tuition fees for EU nationals and their British counterparts.
Longer courses such as medicine attract even higher fees.
Vivienne Stern, director of UKK’s international branch, said universities earned £6 billion in tuition fees.
Foreign students accounted for at least 17 percent of that.
“In some universities the proportion of total income which comes from international student fees is higher than that. But for most universities it’s a significant source of income,” she added.
A report by the consultancy firm London Economics in April for the University and College Union estimated that all foreign students (EU and non-EU) were 47 percent less likely to enrol in their first year in the UK in 2020-2021 compared to 2018-2019.
For British students, the figure was 16 percent.
That could threaten as many as 30,000 direct jobs and more than 32,000 in the local economy which depend on the university sector.
“It will affect both teaching within universities because a lot of courses are only economically viable because of the presence of international students,” said HEPI’s Hillman.
“And it will also affect research in British universities, because when British universities get research funding from governments or charities or companies… you never get 100 percent the costs of your research.
“You’ve got something like three quarters of the costs of your research and the other quarter is made up from international student fees.”
Hillman described the situation as a paradox, given that some universities are at the forefront of global efforts to find a vaccine against the coronavirus and drug treatments.
Oxford University, which is on the front line of human vaccine trials, has announced a 12-month hiring freeze.
The University of Manchester, one of the largest in the country, has also put a brake on hiring and reduced the salaries of its managers by 20 percent.
Manchester’s president and vice-chancellor Nancy Rothwell said they could not rule out job losses.
“It is possible… that we could lose as many as 80 percent of all our international students and 20 percent of our European students,” she said in a statement.
“This will result in a loss of well over £270 million in one year.”
To mitigate losses, the university is considering asset sales and postponing the date for the resumption of courses normally scheduled from September.
The education ministry said in response that universities were eligible for emergency government rescue plans, including covering salaries to avoid redundancies.
Despite the crisis, UKK’s Stern is trying to be optimistic.
“We’ve got an opportunity to get… an online offer really good that I think will have a lasting legacy,” she said.
“And it could be a really powerful way of extending opportunities to study at university to people who probably couldn’t afford the traditional model of flying half way around the world and living away from home for a long period.
“So I hope there will be some benefits to that.”
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