International students: cash cows or agents for change?

International students: cash cows or agents for change?

The European region continues to be a top study destination for international students. At the same time, European national economies are faced with an ongoing financial crisis that is putting pressure on funding for higher education. As the number of international students continues to increase and countries are faced with how to pay for the increasing cost of higher education, many countries are now wrestling with the tuition fee debate – a discussion that draws in varying views.

Dialogue 2 at EAIE 2015 in Glasgow addressed this contentious topic by bringing together experts from around Europe and beyond to discuss the perils and promises of introducing tuition fees for international students. John Gill from Times Higher Education moderated the discussion and began with the analogy of the student as a ‘cash cow’. If you envision the dairy cows in the UK this description is objectionable, but if you envision the regal highland cows it is perhaps a bit easier to digest. Even with this description many of the panel members agreed that students should be looked at as agents of change, not simply revenue generation.

International students should not be treated differently

Lea Meister representing the European Students’ Union addressed issues of access, quality, and differential student experiences justifying the stance against tuition fees. The issue of access is central to the argument against tuition as fees are seen as a barrier to accessing higher education. The reality is that once a price tag is put on a higher education degree, some students will simply be priced out of the market. Meister also addressed the assumption that higher fees do not equal higher quality stating that “international students should not be treated differently than domestic students”.

Do fees reflect value?

Daniel Guhr, a consultant from the USA, shared data points on the topic. According to his research, out of the 4.5 million international students, 2.1 million are fee-eligible students – meaning they have the financial means to pay tuition fees. However, only 1 million of these students actually pay fees. He left the audience with a few reflective questions, “When you charge fees, do these fees reflect the value of the education?” For the students, “is enrolling at an institution that charges fees a good investment?”

Taxpayers cannot pay for more international students

Anneli Pauli, from Lappeenranta University of Technology, explained the unique tuition fee debate in Finland and how fees are likely to become part of the national international student landscape in the autumn of 2016. “We want more international students, but Finnish taxpayers cannot afford more international students”. She tempered this with a discussion on a well-planned approach to tuition fees that is not just motivated by the new revenue stream. There must be a scholarship strategy in place when introducing tuition fees to ensure that you are able to attract talent, and it needs to be an affordable fee. Pauli also addressed the quality issue and how some students view tuition-free higher education as being of lower quality, “if something is free, it is not of high quality”.

New approaches to internationalisation

Pamela Gillies from Glasgow Caledonian University described various transnational education ventures that her university has co-created with developing countries, industry, and NGOs. These “low-cost and high-quality” educational experiences forge “new approaches to internationalisation”.

While many arguments for and against tuition fees surfaced, the audience was left with several unanswered questions and issues to reflect upon.  The topic of and discussion on tuition fees for international students in the European landscape continues to evolve.  Will the international student market in Europe become more competitive and commoditised as some countries introduce tuition fees?  Is introducing tuition fees for international students a trend that we will continue to see other countries following suit or will there be countries who continue to offer tuition-free higher education?

Leasa is Knowledge Development Adviser for the EAIE.

Leasa Weimer
EAIE, the NetherlandsLeasa is Senior Adviser for Knowledge Initiatives for the EAIE.