One of the sectors that has been most adversely impacted is education. In the UK, schools, colleges and universities have been forced to close, exams are on hold and the term looks to have ended abruptly. However, the impact of the coronavirus on universities looks set to extend far beyond this academic year.

Last month, it was mooted that universities in England could face fixed limits on how many students they each recruit in order to reduce financial difficulties and create more stability. The thinking behind this idea stems from a concern that the uncertainty caused by coronavirus could result in some universities with too few applicants to stay financially sustainable. Imposing student number controls would leave individual universities unable to expand and ensure that the share of students between universities stayed similar to current levels.

However, industry leaders were quick to flag that any limit on student numbers would also limit the choices available to college leavers and could impact the recruitment of international students.

How fixed limits would affect the recruitment of international students?

Universities are widely expecting a massive fall in overseas students next term. Recent studies have estimated the number of international students enrolling in UK universities could drop by as much as 20% in the best-case scenario. Notably, a worst-case scenario could see an 80% drop in the number of international students.


Regardless of the final figure, such a sudden drop of students could be disastrous for universities that rely on the income generated by international students. For instance, a handful of Russell Group universities, including Birmingham, Durham and Warwick, count on international students for over a quarter of their total income.

As a result of these predictions, we’ve seen universities up the ante to try and attract UK students to plug this huge gap. But last month’s news could limit this and may plunge some universities into financial hardship.

What are the possible side-effects for the economy?

But the financial impact of a drop in international students coming to the UK extends beyond universities. On average, about 230,000 international students arrive each year for university courses in the UK – most of them postgraduates, with China the most common country of origin.

These students don’t just study in the UK, they live and shop in the UK and contribute to the economy every single day of their course. In fact, a 2018 Higher Education Policy Institute report found that international students are worth £20 billion to the UK economy.

Therefore, a fall in international students would add another financial headache to an economy that is already going through a turbulent time.

When universities are likely to see student recruitment return to normality?

A key difficulty for universities looking to respond to this crisis is that there is no fixed end date. We are in unprecedented times where every sector is experiencing disruption and the everyday life of billions of people is being interrupted. Some expert estimations had expected the disruption to last approximately 13 weeks, although this is subject to change of course. If this is the case, it would allow universities to resume next year as planned. However, there remain question marks over the timeline for students finalising their studies this academic year and for how long remote working environments will need to be extended.

With this in mind, student number controls are arguably necessary to ensure that every institution in the UK has a viable first-year student population this September and is financially sustainable. Although these measures may stop the expansion of university places and limit the choices of individual students, radical action, such as fixed limits, are vital at bringing short-term stability to the sector during this time of disruption.

Adam Ewart, CEO and Founder of Send My Bag