Ministers have been accused of seeking to plug a black hole in university funding by arranging for 10,000 fee-paying Brazilians to study in the UK.
David Willetts, the universities minister, flew to South America last month to arrange a deal that he hopes will be highly lucrative at a time of cuts to state funding for higher education. The Brazilian government is planning to provide up to £18,700 a student.
Universities UK, the representative body for universities in this country, said it welcomed the plan, which promised “rich rewards”.
The development follows a £200m cut by the coalition government to state funding for higher education, which will mean 24,000 fewer places for UK and EU students, including teacher training allotments, over the next two academic years. Figures published last week also suggested that 220,000 UK and EU students would be unable to attain places this autumn following a 1.4% year-on-year increase in demand for university places as of the end of June.
While the Brazilians will not take places otherwise available to British and EU students, concerns were raised last night that the government’s funding model for higher education is becoming increasingly reliant on attracting overseas nationals who, if they had been born in the UK, might have struggled to attain a place at a university in this country.
Brazil does not have a single institution in the Times Higher Education list of the world’s 200 top universities.
Willetts’s mission also appears to fly in the face of a vow by the home secretary, Theresa May, earlier this year to bring in regulations that would result in 85,000 fewer non-EU nationals coming to the UK to study each year as part of plans to curb immigration.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: “UK higher education benefits massively from having staff and students from across the world. However, the government must not use overseas students as cash cows, and as a way of bailing out its flawed university funding plans.
“With hundreds of thousands of domestic students set to miss out on a university place this summer, ministers shouldn’t be looking to ration access on the basis of who can pay the most.
“If the UK wants to remain competitive in the global knowledge economy, we should be following the example of competitor nations and expanding student capacity for both home and overseas students.”
The shadow universities minister, Gareth Thomas, said Willetts’s trip to Brazil was a “desperate” move. He added: “I am all for increasing exports, but with the government having cut teaching funding by 80% and funding for world-class facilities by 40%, this looks like a desperate attempt to help universities balance their books.
“With David Cameron and David Willetts having axed almost 24,000 domestic student places, many English families who see loved ones turned away from university this summer will wonder if the government has got its priorities right.”
Usman Ali, vice-president for higher education at the National Union of Students, said: “Instead of spending his time touting for a Brazilian bailout to the student funding chaos he created, David Willetts should reverse the cut he imposed to domestic student numbers that risks leaving many without a place this summer.”
The deal was discussed at a roundtable meeting in Brazil attended by Willetts, Brazilian ministers, and 13 British university vice-chancellors, including those from Birmingham, Warwick and Nottingham.
The details have yet to be finalised, but it is expected that the Brazilian undergraduates would stay in the UK for nine months, although the British government is also exploring the possibility of offering postgraduate courses.
Non-EU students pay fees of up to £26,000 a year and are not counted within the allotment that each university is allowed to take on each year. It is estimated that the numbers of overseas students being educated in the UK could double in four years as universities seek sources of revenue amid a squeeze on central government funding.
Durham University is expecting a 97% rise in the number of international students between now and 2014-15, and Exeter anticipates a 73% rise across four of its colleges.
Figures show that the number of British students gaining places on degree courses starting last autumn fell by 0.1%, from 425,063 to 424,634. But the number of non-EU students rose by 7.8%, from 32,984 to 37,088. There was a 27.8% increase in students from China and a 20.4% rise in students from Singapore, although the improvement of higher education in both of these countries could see a future fall in numbers.
A government spokesman said that talks over the Brazilian deal were at an early stage.
A statement from Universities UK – whose chief executive, Steve Smith, joined Willetts in Brazil – said: “The scholarships are for a period of under one year and will not mean fewer places for UK students.
“A successful scholarship programme will bring clear benefits to the UK and Brazilian HE sectors and their wider economies, contributing to the knowledge base in both countries, encouraging collaboration in world-class research and facilitating staff and student exchange.”