A big question hangs over British universities. With open days cancelled, visa offices and language testing centres closed, incomes dented and long-haul travel unreliable, just how many international students will enrol this September and what will vice-chancellors do to survive without them?
As students from the global south scramble home, governments in English-speaking countries, which dominate the global education industry, are waking up to the existential threat their absence poses to universities young and old.
The UK’s ability to bounce back will be gravely impaired if international students are no longer around to underpin the foundations of institutions central to our performance as a knowledge economy.
A drop in international student numbers of potentially 50 to 75 per cent will threaten the vitality of dozens of mid-sized British university towns from Chichester to Newcastle and send into reverse one of the great boom businesses of the globalised economy.
There are few sectors of the world economy in which the UK is globally competitive.
International education has been one of them, despite years of inept policy from a Home Office desperate to manage down numbers because of the foolish inclusion of students in the (now thankfully abandoned) 100,000 net migration target.
Britain is second only to the US in its share of some five million overseas students, although it risks being overtaken by Australia, Canada and China itself, now a major destination for outward-bound learners as well as the biggest source of them.
In the absence of other government funding, sustaining excellence in a system that currently boasts three universities in the world’s top ten and no fewer than 31 in the world’s top 200 would simply be impossible without them.
The £7 billion they bring in fees provides an annual cross-subsidy that compensates for losses incurred in research and the teaching of high-cost subjects. These include not just laboratory-based sciences but also courses vital for our creative industries.