British universities could face a funding shortfall of at least £463 million after nearly one in three students from East Asia have indicated they are likely to delay or cancel their overseas study plans this year.
Nearly 14,000 fewer new students from East Asia could enrol at UK campuses this academic year compared to 2018-19 amid the Covid-19 pandemic, a report from the British Council has estimated.
Prospective students also are more likely to favour postponing the start of the academic year to January for more face-to-face teaching rather than start courses online in the autumn, the research suggests.
The survey, of more than 15,000 students across eight key markets in East Asia, found 29% of students are likely to delay or cancel their overseas study plans this year – and a further 35% are undecided.
Of the Chinese students surveyed, nearly two in five (39%) are still on the fence about what to do this autumn, while 23% have said they are likely to cancel or delay their plans to study abroad.
Most of the respondents were “in the pipeline” to study in the UK, with 96 per cent of those having already applied to study abroad this year choosing the country for at least one of their applications.
In 2018-19, more than half (52%) of new non-EU international students at UK higher education institutions in the 2018-19 academic year came from the eight territories in East Asia surveyed.
But the report estimates that the number of students from East Asia choosing to study in the UK could drop by 12% this year compared to 2018-19 – leading to a decline of at least £463 million in funding.
The survey also suggests that prospective postgraduate students overwhelmingly favour a face-to-face start in January (63%) over an autumn start online (15%).
And nearly half (46%) of prospective undergraduate students prefer a delayed January start compared to 37% who would want to start virtually from September or October.
Last week, university leaders unveiled a series of proposals for easing out of lockdown – which included using a “blended” learning approach, with a mix of online and face-to-face classes, in the autumn.
Students arriving at university could be made to live in a “bubble” with people on the same courses to limit social mixing, while traditional freshers’ weeks and large-scale lectures are likely to be off the cards.
Matt Durnin, global head of insights and consultancy at the British Council, said: “Prospective international students are facing a lot of uncertainty, but many are clearly trying to find a way to keep their overseas study plans.
“There is a window of opportunity over the next two months to create a greater sense of certainty about the upcoming academic year.”
A recent survey from the University and College Union (UCU) found that most prospective students would delay starting university in the autumn if they were able to secure more face-to-face classes.
Jo Grady, UCU general secretary, said: “This latest report is more evidence of the serious financial hardship that universities will suffer if the government does not step in.
“The current wait and see approach from ministers is exacerbating the crisis for prospective students and putting tens of thousands of jobs at universities and in the wider economy at risk.”
Julia Buckingham, president of Universities UK (UUK) and vice-chancellor of Brunel University, said: “We have a short window to convince undecided applicants that they can plan with confidence to study in the UK this autumn. This needs action by Government as well as universities.”
UUK is calling on Government to make sure the visa system allows for students to start courses online to allow for the blended approach to teaching being planned by universities this autumn.
“This is important for students who might be reserving final judgments about whether to come to the UK or not in the autumn,” Professor Buckingham said.
Universities minister Michelle Donelan said: “International students are an integral part of our society, culture and economy and we are proud that so many international students come to the UK every year to study.
“I want to be clear that those who planned to come here in the autumn can still do so. High-quality teaching will continue and the Government is working hard to ensure processes are as flexible as possible, including around current visa regulations. We have just appointed Sir Steve Smith as our International Education Champion to boost the numbers of international students in the UK.
“We have announced a range of financial support to help ease pressures on universities’ finances, including bringing forward £2.6 billion of tuition fee payments and £100 million of research funding. Universities are also eligible for wider Government support packages, including business loan schemes estimated to be worth £700 million.”
– The British Council surveyed 15,536 students with overseas study plans across Mainland China, Hong Kong SAR, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam between April 24 and May 15.