Charge lower fees to students from developing world, says Habib

SOAS director rails against ‘unjustly’ high mark-up on UK fees for overseas learners

September 27, 2022
Adam Habib, director of SOAS University of London, in 2015
Source: Getty
Adam Habib, director of SOAS University of London

UK universities should consider charging lower tuition fees to international students from poorer countries, according to a sector leader.

Adam Habib, director of SOAS University of London, said that “unjustly” high fees for overseas learners were being wilfully excluded from the debate over how to fund higher education, and that fees should be set at a level that was more reflective of the costs involved in running such courses.

Currently, international fees are “truly skewed”, with some students charged a 400 per cent mark-up on the actual cost of their education, Professor Habib estimated.

Few industries in the world would offer services at such a mark-up, said the former vice-chancellor of Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand. “The fact this is being done by public institutions who invoke the public good should be a red flag, and we should be looking at this,” he told Times Higher Education.


THE Campus resource: How to support international students’ journey through higher education


Skyrocketing inflation of more than 10 per cent has reignited the debate over higher education funding in the UK, just months after the Westminster government decided to continue the freeze on domestic undergraduate fees in England at £9,250 a year.

Professor Habib said that while there has been much “thoughtful debate” on ensuring a balance between asking individuals to pay more versus the cost to the taxpayer, it was “striking” that there had been “absolutely no attempt to tackle the issue of international fees”.

He claimed that most vice-chancellors felt “uncomfortable” about how much international students were asked to pay but were intent on ignoring the issue.

He pointed out that ministers had tightly regulated two of the three major financial levers by capping domestic fees and restricting public funding but had left a third – international fees – completely unregulated, meaning it is relied upon to subsidise operations.

“There’s a fear that opening the conversation will result in universities being placed under new constraints, restricting their ability to cross-subsidise other areas,” Professor Habib said.

“But it is not a solution to hide away from the problem, to say: ‘We need the money; there is nothing we can do.’”

Professor Habib warned that without acknowledgement that international fee levels are “unsustainable”, the sector risked being seen as “hypocritical”, with talk of social justice and protecting students against exploitation seen as applying only to the domestic market.

A sliding scale for fees dependent on whether governments are subsidising students or a country’s overall level of wealth could be one option for a fairer system, according to Professor Habib. The latter could see students from Saudi Arabia or China charged more, for example, than those from parts of Africa.

A second option of co-teaching programmes with institutions in the Global South is something that SOAS is already exploring. Professor Habib said he was “in conversation with a number of institutions about joint transnational programmes and exploring a single fee structure that is more appropriate for the whole market”.

But, he said, institutions cannot do it alone and need to also call for reform of the entire system. “We have been forced into this by a particular systemic environment, and we need to collectively say it is inappropriate and needs to be dealt with at both the institutional and systemic level,” he said.

tom.williams@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Habib: cut fees for students from the developing world

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Reader's comments (3)

But then should we be charging ALL poorer students less?
Finally after more than 30 years in international education somebody in a position of influence is articulating what I have always thought. This will of course be politely ignored but institutions will be on the back foot. Great work Prof Adam!
Finally after more than 30 years in international education somebody in a position of influence is articulating what I have always thought. This will of course be politely ignored but institutions will be on the back foot. Great work Prof Adam!
Finally after more than 30 years in international education somebody in a position of influence is articulating what I have always thought. This will of course be politely ignored but institutions will be on the back foot. Great work Prof Adam!

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