Increase in overseas students could cost Britons their places

British school-leavers could be squeezed out of leading universities by an increasing number of overseas students, it was claimed yesterday.

The number of overseas students is predicted to triple to more than 870,000 by 2020, according to a study for the British Council. The research found that the changing face of the student population would boost the economy by about £13bn a year.

Oxford University is already considering plans to increase the number of overseas undergraduates, who pay higher fees, while freezing the total number of undergraduate places, thus cutting the number of places available to UK school-leavers.

A report by an Oxford-based think-tank has warned that 600 British school-leavers could be denied places at Oxford by 2008, rising to 1,400 by 2020.

The largest predicted growth in demand is from China, with student numbers predicted to leap from 20,000 to 225,000 by 2020, the British Council report said.

The enlargement of the European Union will bring a dramatic rise in students from Turkey, Romania and Poland, according to the report, Vision 2020: Forecasting International Student Mobility.

There are now about 270,000 international students at British universities, who pay £1.5bn a year in fees and contribute £3bn to the economy. Business studies courses are the most popular with foreign students, followed by the arts and humanities, computer science and engineering and technology courses.

Each foreign student at a British university pays an average of £16,000 a year, the report found. International students from non-European Union countries pay the full cost of their courses and some universities are now increasing overseas recruitment to balance their budgets.

British students pay £1,100 a year, which will rise to a maximum of £3,000 from 2006 under the Government's proposals for top-up fees.

The disparity in fees has led to fears that universities will increase their foreign recruitment at the expense of British candidates.

Britain is second only to America in the international student market, which is expected to treble to 5.8 million by 2020, according to the report produced by the British Council, Universities UK and IDP Education Australia.

The British Council warned yesterday that more needed to be done to ensure the UK was not overtaken by competitor universities in Europe, India, and the Far East. A council spokesman said he did not believe that British students would lose out.

However, Alan Smithers, professor of education at Liverpool University, disagreed. "Universities are being asked to make hard decisions between taking a UK student who is essentially costing the university thousands of pounds because their fees don't cover the cost of the course or an overseas students who pays the full fee," he said.

"I think it will become more difficult for home students to get places at some top universities."

Phil Willis MP, the Liberal Democrats' education spokesman, said: "If not enough places are made available, UK-based students will lose out to their higher fee paying international counterparts."

David Green, the British Council's director general, said the Government's target of attracting 75,000 more foreign students had been met. "But we're not complacent," he stressed. "The UK's position in the market and the added value to the economy is at risk if we do not continue to invest."

A Department for Education and Skills spokeswoman said: "We have every intention of remaining one of the most popular destinations for overseas students."

Comments