British universities could be at greater risk amid the Covid-19 crisis due to an “over-reliance” on Chinese postgraduate students in recent years, a report has warned.
A growth in first-year postgraduate students attending universities in the UK since 2008-9 has been largely driven by international students from non-EU countries like China, according to a study.
Chinese students, who formed 38% of the non-EU postgraduate cohort in 2017-18, may delay or cancel their plans to study at British university campuses from this autumn amid the Covid-19 crisis.
The Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) has warned some postgraduate courses could become “unviable” if international student numbers fall as institutions are reliant on their higher tuition fees.
A paper, published by Hepi, looks at how postgraduate education in the UK changed in the decade after the 2007-8 financial crash, when many sought to further their studies amid economic challenges.
It finds that a higher proportion of postgraduate students are female compared to the past, but women with these qualifications still earn 14% less on average than men with the same level of qualifications.
Overall, white men from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to undertake postgraduate study. Among UK-domiciled postgraduate entrants from the poorest areas, only 36% are men, the paper finds.
The report shows that UK-domiciled postgraduate entrants increased by 10% between 2008-9 and 2017-18, but student numbers from overseas grew faster. Non-EU international student levels grew by 33%.
On international students, the report warns: “While the high levels of participation by Chinese students have provided much-needed stability to postgraduate numbers and fee income, the sector’s over-reliance on one particular country represents a risk factor.”
It adds that Covid-19 has led to English proficiency exams required for new entrants being suspended within China and UK universities setting out plans for Chinese students to delay enrolling in the autumn.
Dr Ginevra House, the author of the report, said: “When writing this report, the Covid-19 pandemic had yet to reach its current height, but the risk posed by universities’ increasing reliance on international students was evident.
“The crisis is providing a timely reminder of the importance of a diverse and balanced student body to weather future shocks to the system, supported by government policies that foster international co-operation and mobility of the world’s brightest.”
It comes after a survey from UK graduate jobs website Prospects last week suggested that nearly half of final year students are now contemplating studying a postgraduate course amid Covid-19.
The poll, of more than 1,000 final year students, shows that 58% are putting gap year and travel plans abroad on hold and 47% are now considering studying a masters, PGCE or PhD course.
On the new paper, Nick Hillman, director of Hepi, said: “In some respects, postgraduate education now more closely resembles undergraduate study, with today’s postgraduate students more likely to be women, full-time and young. A higher proportion of postgraduate students are also from overseas.”
He added: “If international postgraduate numbers fall, some courses will become unviable – this is true even if there are more home postgraduates because of the higher fee levels for international students.”
Ben Moore, policy analyst at the Russell Group, said: “The UK has a world-class postgraduate offer and it is important that we maintain ambitious investment in high-cost, high-quality teaching and research to safeguard courses and guarantee academic excellence, choice and opportunities for students.
“Key to this will be ensuring the UK’s higher education system remains internationally competitive and continues to attract postgraduate students from around the globe.”
Claire Sosienski Smith, the National Union of Students (NUS) vice president (Higher Education), said: “We know that postgraduate study brings benefits, but as the report shows, these are still unequally distributed and exacerbated by gendered pay gaps in the workplace.”
Chris Millward, director for fair access and participation at the Office for Students (OfS), said: “This report shows how students and society benefit from postgraduate education.
“It highlights the importance of improving access to postgraduate courses for those groups where participation is especially low.”
A Universities UK (UUK) spokesman said: “Despite the current uncertainty as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is important that postgraduate and lifelong learning opportunities, as well as upskilling and reskilling, continue to increase.
“Undertaking postgraduate study would be a positive option for individuals and the economy, with skilled graduates playing an important role in the recovery of the UK and in helping to rebuild the economy.”