Subscribe to Holyrood updates

Newsletter sign-up


Follow us

Scotland’s fortnightly political & current affairs magazine


Subscribe to Holyrood
'We need international students; higher education can’t function without them'

'We need international students; higher education can’t function without them'

Scotland’s higher education sector is hugely reliant on international students. A 2021 report produced by British Council Scotland found the sector is “highly and increasingly internationalised”, with 27.3 per cent of Scotland’s students – close to 70,000 among a total population of almost 255,000 – coming from overseas. That is a significantly higher proportion than in the rest of the UK, where the figure sat at 22.6 per cent, and the numbers have been growing since. Indeed, while representative body Universities Scotland warned that the pandemic would pose an “existential threat” to Scottish institutions if it stopped international students from enrolling here, a report published by University of Glasgow academic Sarah Armstrong earlier this year found the opposite to be the case. 

“Universities in Scotland significantly increased their income during the pandemic, and they did this by substantially expanding international student numbers,” Armstrong wrote in the report, Profiting from pandemic? Scottish Universities during Covid-19. 

“International postgraduate students were by far the main driver of income growth, and many higher education institutions in the country substantially increased income from this source during the pandemic relative to their pre-pandemic levels. For example, in just two years – 2020-21 and 2021-22 – the University of Edinburgh made more than half a billion pounds (£608m) and the University of Glasgow nearly half a billion pounds (£482m) from international tuition alone, accounting for the lion’s share of all international tuition income in Scotland (65 per cent of the £1.7bn total earned by Scottish universities in these two years).”

University of Glasgow vice-chancellor, Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli says international students subsidise the higher-education sector and help pay for home students
Across Scotland’s nine largest universities – Edinburgh, Glasgow, St Andrews, Strathclyde, Aberdeen, Dundee, Stirling, University of the West of Scotland, and Glasgow Caledonian – international tuition fee income grew by 25 per cent between 2021 and 2022, the report states, rising from a combined total of £717m to £961m. Meanwhile, at St Andrews, the proportion of total income generated from international students grew from 39 per cent in 2016 to 44 per cent in 2022. Over the same timeframe Glasgow’s share rose from 28 per cent to 41 per cent, Edinburgh’s from 28 per cent to 38 per cent and Aberdeen’s from 22 per cent to 34 per cent.

“This paper […] concludes that Covid constituted a unique situation in which widespread worries about loss of income and students were contradicted by an actual pattern of substantial increases in both for Scottish universities,” Armstrong wrote. “Hence, the frame of crisis through which universities initially viewed the pandemic has since transformed into a frame of opportunity that allowed Scottish universities to expand. Scottish universities of all sizes and kinds, pre- and post-1992, research and teaching intensive, all rapidly grew income from international students, especially in 2021-22.”

Scottish universities’ reliance on overseas students often gets painted as problematic, the assumption being that international students are being given opportunities at the expense of homegrown ones. Indeed, a recent report in The Herald newspaper suggested that, with universities able to charge international students significantly more than the Scottish Government pays to cover the fees of home students, “foreign students” were being given the pick of the University of Glasgow’s clearing places.

The university’s vice-chancellor, Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, told BBC Scotland’s The Sunday Show that the claim misunderstands university funding models, which effectively rely on international students to subsidise the amount paid on Scottish students’ behalf. This, he said, ensures institutions can generate enough income to be able to teach home students too.

“What these students do is they actually pay for our home students, they support their educations because funding in England and in Scotland for home students in terms of funding their education doesn’t meet the cost,” he said. “International students add £4.75bn to the Scottish economy. It is effectively a huge asset, and I think debates like this are important, but we mustn’t forget just how important these students are to our economic future.”

Deborah Shepherd, higher education officer at teaching union the EIS, agrees. She says that, while it varies depending on the type of institution, with the ancients and Russell Group members better able to attract foreign students than post-1992 institutions like Abertay or Napier, Scottish universities have become hugely reliant on international students, some of whom will pay more than £100,000 over four years compared to the £1,820 a year paid for home students. Though home students pay no tuition fees, the Scottish Government limits the amount it will pay via the Scottish Funding Council to around £120m each year, meaning there is a cap on the number of home students each institution can take in a single year. With no limit on the number of overseas students, the income they can generate is potentially limitless. “We need them,” Shepherd says. “The sector can’t function without them.”

Yet Ellie Gomersall, president of NUS Scotland, says that the experience international students are being given in return for those fees is falling short. On the one hand there have been well-documented issues around students not receiving the teaching they have paid for and in some cases not being able to graduate due to strikes and marking boycotts carried out by members of the University and College Union. On the other, despite universities making a concerted effort to attract large numbers of international students, Gomersall says they have done little to ensure the infrastructure needed to support them is in place.

There’s a huge skew in funding for universities because the way the money is brought in is very different for pre-92 universities

“They have teams going around the world to recruit students but a lot of them don’t have the necessary English language skills,” she says. “They are paying all this money but they don’t have the language skills to be able to thrive and get the grades they deserve. That’s not fair on them.

“Another issue is that universities are offering more and more places to more and more people, predominantly international students, but are not taking any responsibility for making sure there are enough houses, working with the NHS to make sure there are enough GPs, enough mental health support. That has implications for wider society.

“International students are often paying tens of thousands of pounds a year but are arriving and facing things like homelessness and quite extreme poverty. We found earlier this year that more than one in five have experienced homelessness in Scotland, which is more than double the rate for home students. Home students are able to access hardship funds but international students are not eligible for the majority of those funds so they are disproportionately affected by poverty but are also not able to access the help.”

This can lead to extreme outcomes, as shown in the case of Stirling University student Muhammad Raud Waris, a Pakistani national who was held in Dungavel Immigration Removal Centre for two months after breaching strict Home Office rules that prevent international students from working for more than 20 hours a week. He has been released on bail, but his student visa remains revoked and he is still facing deportation. Gomersall says numerous students trying to support themselves have been similarly caught out because the restrictions only apply during term time and they have “worked a couple of hours too early, a couple of days too soon”.

Given the amount of resource universities are pouring into attracting overseas students – and the fact that a degree from a good UK university comes with a certain cachet – these issues are unlikely to dissuade international students from coming to Scotland. In any case, Shepherd says universities are “getting very good” at bringing international students in, employing agencies in target countries to recruit them. That has obvious benefits, but a major downside is that it is widening the funding gulf between pre- and post-1992 universities – those that were established as universities and those that achieved university status when the Further and Higher Education Act was passed – which in turn impacts on the kind of education home students can expect to receive.

“Post-92 universities tend to be majority government funded,” she says. “There’s a huge skew in funding for universities because the way the money is brought in is very different for pre-92 universities. They bring in international student fees in greater levels because people have heard of them and they can flash a nice campus. They are also better funded in terms of research, which will bring in more PhDs. There will be a large number of foreign students doing PhDs and they will bring bigger fees.”

Napier and fellow Edinburgh institution Heriot-Watt, which was granted university status in the 1960s so falls between the pre- and post-92 classification, have both reduced the number of language courses they offer, with the former cutting French, Spanish and German courses in the 2021-22 academic year because they are “economically unsustainable”. Even at pre-1992 institutions, selling themselves in a global marketplace is having an impact on the way courses are taught, with education expert Lindsay Paterson, professor emeritus of education policy at the University of Edinburgh, noting that his employer’s ability to attract so many students from overseas while the number of home students has remained steady has changed the content of the courses he teaches.

“There’s no doubt that the composition of the undergraduate level has an effect on what is taught,” he says. “I’m talking from the experience of teaching at Edinburgh University and, as an anecdote, about 12 years ago I moved from the School of Education to the School of Social and Political Science and the change was very noticeable. When I was in the education school I was mainly teaching about Scottish policies like the Curriculum for Excellence, only very rarely would I talk about what was happening outside the UK. When I moved, not many people were interested in those issues and that’s not really a surprise when so many students come from places like China or Germany. Now I just use the Scottish situation as a comparator. It’s changed the focus, it’s become much more comparative.”

Another issue created by home student numbers being capped is that for popular courses at popular institutions there sometimes are not enough places to go round. This was highlighted earlier this year when it was reported that, due to access-widening policies, Scottish students from wealthier backgrounds were rejected from the University of Edinburgh’s law, business and Japanese programmes despite having the necessary grades. Though that situation had nothing to do with the number of international students on the courses, Paterson says universities could look to their overseas recruitment policies for a solution.

“It’s a false argument about home students versus international students because they come via different streams of selection, but if it’s difficult for students from Edinburgh to get into Edinburgh law school because of the interaction of the cap and widening-access policies then that’s a legitimate concern,” he says. “But I do think the universities could have pushed the boundaries a bit more. Why don’t they use the surplus money generated from international students to create bursaries for Scottish students? It gets used a bit but not as much as it could be. 

“More controversially, why not sell places to the children of more well-off Scottish parents? As far as I can see that’s not against the rules. The rules the Scottish Funding Council imposes restrict the number of people that are counted as Scottish students but universities could create another category and if you’ve sent your child to George Watson’s or George Heriot’s the fees wouldn’t be that much different. My guess would be that there would be an appetite for that, but no university has been bold enough to try.”

Holyrood Newsletters

Holyrood provides comprehensive coverage of Scottish politics, offering award-winning reporting and analysis: Subscribe

Read the most recent article written by Margaret Taylor - Scottish Government 'failed citizens' with 'flawed' Covid strategy.



Get award-winning journalism delivered straight to your inbox

Get award-winning journalism delivered straight to your inbox


Popular reads
Back to top