There has been a big fuss in the UK about the status of international students. Many in the higher education industry are upset that the government insists on including these students in the overall total of immigrants, which might lead at some point to a reduction in their numbers. Leading twitterati have erupted in anger. Phil Baty of THE has called the government's decision "bizarre, bonkers & deeply depressing" and even invoked the name of the arch demon Enoch Powell in support.
So are international students a benefit to British universities? I have just done a quick correlation of the scores for the international students indicator in the QS World University Rankings to see whether there is any link between positive outcomes for students and the number of international students.
This is of course only suggestive. QS provides scores for only 51 universities included in their world top 500 and the situation might be different for other countries. Another caveat is that international students might provide net economic benefits for surrounding communities although that is far from settled.
Here are the correlations with the QS international student score (significance 2 tailed and N in brackets).
Value added .182 (.206; 50) From the Guardian Rankings 2016. Compares entry qualifications with degrees awarded.
Career .102 (.480; 50) Graduate-level employment or postgraduate study six months after graduation. Also from the Guardian rankings. The correlation with the graduate destinations indicator, based on the same data, in the Times Higher Education TEF simulation is even lower, .018, and turns negative after benchmarking, -172.
Students completing degrees .128 (.376; 50). From the TEF simulation. Again, the correlation turns negative after benchmarking.
QS Employers reputation survey .234 (.140; 41). From the 2016 world rankings.
So the number of international students has a slight and statistically insignificant relationship with the quality of teaching and learning as measured by value added, graduate employability, course completion and reputation with employers. Why then are universities so desperate to get as many as possible?
This, I think, is the answer. The correlation between the QS international students indicator and spending per student, measured by the Guardian ranking is .414 (.003; 50) which is very significant considering the noise generated in comparisons of this sort. Of course, correlation does not equal causation, but it seems a reasonable hypothesis that it is the money brought by international students that makes them so attractive to British universities.