Universities in Scotland could be handed a lifeline after reporting a higher number of applications from fee-paying international students than expected.
Abertay University confirmed it had received “strong” interest from overseas, while representative body Universities Scotland said the “early indications are that international student applications are better than originally feared”.
Aberdeen University revealed “encouraging” signs of an “increase” in applications from abroad, meanwhile.
However, the ancient institution still feared it could face a £43 million hole in its finances this year as a result of the pandemic, and other universities were also clear that “a lot of uncertainty” remained, and it was “too early to accurately predict” numbers.
Scotland is a wonderful place to study and every possible preparation is being made to ensure safety during #COVID—19.
— ScotGov Education (@ScotGovEdu) July 6, 2020
Concerns were previously raised that the coronavirus crisis could lead to the number of overseas applicants plummeting by half ahead of the start of the new academic year in September.
Such a slump would leave universities having to plug a huge funding shortfall, with fees from non-EU students making up 16% of all income at Scottish institutions.
In Scotland the Holyrood government pays the fees of Scots and EU students, but universities can charge those from the rest of the UK up to £9,250, and face no restrictions on what they bill foreign students from outside the EU, some of whom have been asked to pay close to £40,000.
On Monday a report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies said 13 UK institutions could go bust without a government bail-out, while other studies have suggested the number could be far higher.
Scottish Higher Education Minister Richard Lochhead, who is due to give a statement to Holyrood on Thursday on support for the sector, admitted in May that the government was considering the “option” of ending free tuition for EU students.
Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, said: “While the early indications are that international student applications are better than originally feared there is still a lot of uncertainty until September, when we will know what fall in international income we face.
“So we need government to be ready to support our teaching contribution to the recovery, as well as our research contribution.”
A spokesman for Abertay University said: “All Scottish universities are facing a significant financial challenge as a result of the pandemic and the UK and Scottish governments must work together to bring forward appropriate support for the sector.
“There are strong international applications for Abertay’s degree programmes, but it is too early to accurately predict what our actual intake might be for the coming academic year.”
An Aberdeen University spokeswoman said: “We regularly review our projected student numbers to monitor the likely financial impact of any changes to these numbers, noting that the Covid-19 pandemic has created uncertainties across a number of different sectors and the higher education sector is no different.
“However, despite the challenging situation, at present it is encouraging that we are continuing to see an increase in the number of international students applying to us for study starting in September 2020, and we are preparing to welcome students to campus.”
A Dundee University spokesman said: “It is too early to comment on potential student numbers but we note that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Universities Minister Michelle Donelan have expressed their support for international students considering studying in the UK recently and we hope that both governments continue to recognise the vital importance of the higher education sector.”
A spokesman for Robert Gordon University said: “While the full extent of the pandemic on the university is still unclear, RGU is in a strong position to mitigate against the impact of Covid-19 while proactively identifying and seizing opportunities to support the country’s recovery.”