Division in plain sight: rising international student fees

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Discussion of tuition fees arises every year, typically focused on the £9,250 fees that home students (and, until this year, EU students) pay being unfair. These
arguments typically come with students feeling that they are not receiving a proper education for this large cost. However, the discussion typically leaves out the largest group which educational institutions make money from: international students. Anyone who has spoken to an international student knows that, at Durham University, their tuition fees are at least double those of home fees.

Mark Steed wrote in Britain in Hong Kong that education is “Britain’s most valuable export”. While that is debatable, it definitely is one of the country’s main exports, whether that is through the use of GSCEs and A-levels in international schools around the world or through the high number of spaces for international students to attend university in the UK every year. In fact, in 2019, the Department of Education showed £19.9 billion earned through educational exports as a whole.

Regarding how this works at a university level, international students are enticed by Britain’s fame for higher education institutions, which in comparison to America are available for a steal. But, as the Government subsidises local students, it uses the fees from international students to fund other university needs, which is how they explain the drastic increase in price. One of the biggest issues at the moment though is how much the price increases every year for international students. While the tuition fees for home students have consistently been £9,250 per annum, international fees have gone up around £5,000 over a five-year period. An evaluation of tuition fees at Durham since 2018 in the table below shows just how much they have changed.

Durham University international student tuition fees

These fees are quickly becoming unmanageable. The stereotype that all international students are extremely rich is incorrect, with most being from similar backgrounds to a majority of Durham students. Often, what happens is that a student’s family will save up for them to study abroad in the hope that it will help their future career paths, but their families have to work overtime or take out loans to pay for the tuition. And most when getting here either get part time work or live meagrely to get by and finish their education. Thus, this increase will further cause these situations to happen, in addition to getting to the point that only the most elite can study abroad. However, this inhibits universities’ ability to grow positively from the interactions with an international community.

One thing is clear though: international students are a commodity. They are told that the increase of fees is to cover what the British government subsidises for home students, but this argument falls apart once one compares the options available for home and international students. Firstly, access to university disability support is limited to home students because they get monetary support from the government for this. The disabilities department in Durham does not have the financial means to provide resources for international students. This is an ableist problem as it stops disabled international students from receiving the same support as their peers. And though fees are meant to cover what is provided for home students, this important factor is left out.

Furthermore, with the Covid-19 situation, the gap in support for international and home students widened. In addition to the traditional arguments as to why online education was not worth the standard tuition fees any student pays, many international students ended up being stuck in their home countries over the last academic year which led to paying exorbitant tuition fees for many resources that they had absolutely zero access to. For example, the library became a shipping service for books to allow students to access literature over lockdown. However, this service did not extend overseas, leaving international students without the full extent of the library.

In conclusion, international students have been treated as little more than a commodity to exploit through rising tuition fees on the basis that universities need the extra money. However, the fairness of these fees has hardly been discussed, mainly due to a negative stereotype that all international students come from extremely wealthy backgrounds. It is important to involve international students in the conversations about how tuition fees impact us all: they need to be treated in the same manner as home students.

Image: uniinnsbruck via Flickr

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