In the last decade, half of new merit-based appointments to the UK Russell Group, a network of 24 leading universities, were non-UK EU citizens. That will no longer be the case and it is unclear where the substitute talent will come from, though India and China are candidates. Already in 2019-2020, the proportion of international students who were EU citizens dropped from 29.4% the previous year to 26.6% and when the 2020-2021 data are in, a larger decline is expected. With EU students in the future paying the same high fees as other internationals, the number of Masters students from EU countries is falling to half or less. This will severely impact universities such as LSE that have specialized in Europe-related courses.
The UK remains a powerful attractor of fee-paying non-EU foreign students, as powerful on a per head of population basis as the United States, despite the fact that the UK offers much less in economic and career opportunities. This points to the essential cultural power of the Anglo-American countries, which above all explains their favoured position in global student flows.
It is not just about the potency of the English language. That is a symptom and not the cause. It is about historical Anglo-American power and present global identity. Critics of the racialized character of dominant cultures describe international higher education as an investment in "Whiteness" by non-white students from all over the world, and the US and UK universities as holding the position of "the whitest of the white". However unpalatable this seems, it is the reality. This means that UK universities can always fill an emerging income gap by pumping up the number of Chinese or Malaysian students who enter (entry from India is less scalable because of the devastating effects of the pandemic in that country).
But in 2019-2020, UK higher education already took in 104,240 students from China, and just 64,115 from EU countries. UK higher education generates 15% of its total income in the "soft money" flow of international student fees. There is a limit to pumping up numbers from China, if universities are to remain primarily focused on local students. Moreover, dependence on China has become more risky than before because of growing geo-political tensions between the US and China, and pressure on the UK to side with the Americans.
The UK government has just announced the establishment of a special unit of the department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) that administers research. It is located in Manchester and will monitor British university connections with China. In this new security-ridden global university atmosphere, the China student tap could be turned off at the China end, leaving UK universities in the lurch. The case of Australia, one of the few examples that deeply impacts thinking in the UK, dramatically demonstrates the dangers of high dependence on international student fees. Australia has completely blocked international student entry during the pandemic and its universities, which in 2019 derived a quarter of their income from the global student market, are in serious trouble.
Governance and research
The UK already has the governance model that Institut Montaigne is proposing for France - the development of more American style boards of governors with majority external representation. It may be uneven but the pattern exists across the sector.
It also has a reduced role for academic staff in governance and leadership selection and enhanced managerial control over capital facilities, budgets and human resources within the framework of national legislation. This has both facilitated responses to the pandemic and left institutions less well protected. The pressures have fallen on manager-leaders, including both vice-chancellors and chief financial officers (governing bodies have played a minor role, they are simply not enough on task) and the robust managerial culture of the UK universities has served them well. No doubt that staff and students would like a larger sway in governance, but this is not on the agenda. Once universities move in the direction of corporate reform they do not reverse.