The International Student Industry: putting tuition fees into perspective


Did you know that in the academic year 2017-2018, a certain 21% of all Durham students paid for 36.5% of the University’s tuition fee revenue? I’m talking about students who pay the international tuition fee, and I’m talking about how we’re in for a treat – new waves of overseas students are facing an increased fee for the year 2020-2021. This is not new at all, it’s part a booming industry here in the UK, worth over £25 billion. 

In the academic year 2017-2018, a certain 21% of all Durham students paid for 36.5% of the University’s tuition fee revenue

First, I must address the phrase ‘international fee’. It is a deceiving name, for while international includes all non-UK people, the international fee does not apply to the majority of European students, even for those from non-EU countries like Switzerland. The students I want to look at here are those from outside of Europe, 80.6% of whom are from Asia.  

The numbers, when I found them, readily available on Durham University’s website, are quite astonishing. From 2008 to 2018, the number of Asian students, undergraduates and postgraduates, increased by 153%, with the Chinese student population alone swelled by 210%Meanwhile, the international student number as a whole (all non-UK students) rose by 93%, and the UK students body grew by a mere 4%. It is safe to say then, that the growth of the university in the last decade has been largely due to the influx of Asian students.  

Truth be told, I am starting to think that I hadn’t imagined seeing more of us Asian students walking down the street. In 2019 alone, Durham has seen the opening of two new Chinese grocery stores, and two bubble tea shops. It’s hard not to notice this growing presence and wonder what this really means. Along with this obvious change are occasional reminders from Durfess (“Sometimes I think Wikipedia deserves my £9,250 more than Durham Uni”) which elicits the question – do overseas student have something to say about how much they pay?  

I am starting to think that I hadn’t imagined seeing more of us Asian students walking down the street

Since the majority of students are undergraduates, I decided to look at the numbers for undergraduate programmes more closely. For overseas students entering Durham in October 2018, the yearly tuition fee for most courses was about £18,300, the exception being subjects requiring additional equipment like Biological Sciences or Engineering. This is already almost double what Home and EU students pay, which is capped at £9,250. However, for those non-European students enrolling in 2020, only two years later, some will be paying £20,500 a year, while most will pay £21,500. The former is for courses like BA History or BA Criminology, while the latter is for courses BSc Finance or BA Economics.  

This price difference is not innocent, especially considering that in 2018, the international fee for BA History and BA Economics are the same. It’s undeniable that these price hikes are part of a strategy to use international – mainly Chinese students – as a revenue source, especially when you link this with the high percentage of international students doing these courses. If you haven’t seen the sight of a student body dominated by Asians waiting to enter or pouring out of a lecture hall, you must not have a lot of lectures in the Science Site or the Business School, because in these halls, these students make up ¾ of classes. In 2018-2019, 76.2% of students doing BSc Finance are international, and it’s 75.3% for Marketing and Management.  

This isn’t something new or surprising, for that matter. University education used to be free for UK nationals until the 1990s, and fees exponentially shot up from £1,000 to £3,000 to £9,000 in the first 15 years of the 21st century. It is outrageous for Home students to think they are paying, or taking out loans to pay, up to 9 times what their parents paid for university, and so UK universities began looking towards international students to subsidise what they can’t demand from Home students. Universities began advertising more abroad, and their success is shown in the fact that from the 1980s to the 2010s, the number of international students entering the country soared by 600%.  

From the 1980s to the 2010s, the number of international students entering the country soared by 600%

Before coming to the UK, I never really questioned the amount my family would have to pay. Perhaps it’s successful marketing on the part of Britain’s higher education institutions but I’ve always understood the quality and prestige of having been educated by a long-standing UK university. And I appreciate the government’s effort to keep such wonderful opportunities as accessible as possible to its citizens. Naturally, to invest, innovate and improve, these institutions needed to look elsewhere for revenue. Most of the international friends I’ve spoken to about had the same mindsetWe usually think that it is all worth it, not just the tuition fee but living, travelling, Visa, insurance costs.  

Of course, many will think that while we pay more, we can afford it. That somehow, we’re all ‘crazy rich Asians’. Well, newsflash, not all of us are. Many are from well-off families when compared to our country’s average incomes, but we don’t clad ourselves in haute couture or go on shopping trips in Europe during the holidays. For many of us, going to university is indeed a hefty investment.  

Why am I babbling on about this? Because I can’t help but notice that while there are various comments on the supposed ripping off the University is committing by charging £9,250 a year for hours of independent work, there isn’t a single voice wondering how international students feel about this. Do we feel ripped off? Do we believe that we’re not getting our money’s worth? Since we pay more for the same things, it wouldn’t hurt to consider our perspective, would it? 

Image by Paul Dennis via Flickr and Creative Commons


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