London’s Elite Universities and the Global Social Elites

Trends in Non-UK domiciled Undergraduate Student Numbers

In the academic year 2014/15, there were 1 727 895 undergraduate students enrolled in UK higher education institutions. 13.4% of these students came from outside the UK, with 4.5% coming from other European Union countries and the remaining 8.9% coming from outside the European Union. This represents a slight increase of approximately 2% in the proportion of non-UK domiciled students over the five year period from 2009/10 when the proportion was 11.3%. However, the distribution of non-UK domiciled students is not uniform across all higher education institutions. Two factors appear to determine the proportion of non-UK domiciled students in an institution, namely the position of the institution on international higher education rankings, and the location of the institution.

The University of Exeter Intercultural Integration Project

In 2009/10 I led a Higher Education Academy funded project to promote intercultural integration amongst Engineering students at the University of Exeter. Apart from myself, the rest of the team comprised three undergraduate students, who, like myself, had lived in, or had significant exposure to, two or more national cultures in addition to the UK. The first student was in the 4th year of the  MEng Civil Engineering programme at the time of the project. He was born in Thailand, and during his childhood he lived with his parents in a number of Asian and African countries. The second one was born in the Philippines, and she had come to the UK with her parents at an early age. She had gone to school in the UK, and her personal networks comprise friends, colleagues and relatives in both the UK and the Philippines. At the time of the project, she was in the second year of the MEng Electrical Engineering  programme.  The third student was a UK-domiciled student, and at the time of the project she was in her second year of the MEng Civil Engineering  programme. She comes from a widely-travelled family, and she is passionate about other cultures, countries and places.

At the time of the project, home students and international students in the Department of Engineering fell into two distinct groups. In lectures, and other class activities, home students kept to home students, and international students kept to themselves. Putting the two student categories into teams was fraught with difficulties. International students felt uncomfortable mingling with the home students, and home students didn’t seem to know of any means to establish links with the international students. The language skills of most international students was at best rudimentary, and there was a perception amongst the students that the interests and goals of the two groups were essentially incompatible. To put it lightly, at the beginning of the project there existed a culture of fear, and mutual suspicion between the two student groups. The project proposed a number of steps that the department and the institution could take so as to foster a collaborative intercultural learning environment. Most of these proposals were adopted, and intercultural integration at Exeter has considerably improved.

Unique Trends in London Elite Universities

From the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data, as a general rule, the higher the position of the institution on the Times Higher Education World Rankings, the higher the proportion of non-UK domiciled students. In addition, institutions located in large metropolitan cities have a higher likelihood of high numbers of non-UK domiciled students compared to institutions located in smaller cities and towns. For example, an analysis of the top 10 UK universities on the Times Higher Education rankings for 2015/16 clearly shows that London based elite universities have significantly higher proportions of non-UK domiciled students compared to other institutions (Table1). For instance, at 46.54%, the proportion of non-UK domiciled students at the London School of Economics is almost equal to the proportion of UK-domiciled students. Imperial College and UCL are not far behind, with 41.38% and 37.70% of their students being of non-UK domicile.

Within the UK we habitually categorise our students as international students or home students to distinguish non-UK domiciled students from UK-domiciled students. Given the significantly high proportions of international students in London-based institutions, it is doubtful whether this categorisation still holds any academic merit.

The typical London-based elite university is essentially a multinational institution, with a global footprint that reaches to all the corners of the earth. Students come from all over the world. You are just as likely to meet a student from Malaysia, or  Indonesia, just as you are likely to meet a student from India or Pakistan, or from Russia or the Ukraine. You are just as likely to hear Cantonese and Mandarin being spoken as you are likely to hear London Cockney. In fact English dialects like Geordie, Scouse and Northern are considerably rare compared to international English dialects like Indian and Nigerian English. Who then is a home student, and who then is an international student at the typical London global university?

Table 1: Percentage of non-UK domicile undergraduate students for the Top Ten UK Universities in the Times Higher Education World Rankings (2015-16)

UniversityWorld RankingEU and non-EU International Students  as a Percentage of Undergraduate Student Population
Imperial College London841.38%
University College London1437.70%
London School of Economics2346.54%
King’s College London2723.54%

Comparison of Students at Exeter and the London Elite Universities

In 2009/10 when we ran the intercultural integration project at Exeter, the students had somehow unconsciously organised themselves into some kind of unhealthy hierarchy, with home students at the top, and non- European Union students at the bottom. European Union students, and students from Canada, Australia and the USA tended to be on par with home students. It was clear that non-European Union students didn’t feel at home in the institution. They were few in number, and culturally isolated. In this regard, the work by the three students Guy, Katrina and Alice cannot be underestimated. They set out to break down socio-cultural barriers within the student body that, by and large, hearkened back to the colonial era, and that had aspects of social class segregation as well.

At UCL, one of the London elite universities, it is self-evident that students do not fall neatly into the home student/ international student divide. Culturally and academically they are the same. They are all high performing, and they are comfortable speaking in English, and friendships flourish just as well across student nationalities as they do within individual nationalities.  In any case, “international” students are just as likely to speak in English as they are likely to speak in their home languages. Both home and international students appear to share a common background. Most have been to elite schools in Europe and within the UK, and they largely share the same recreational activities.

An international student is just as likely as a home student to talk about skiing, rugby, cricket and polo. Not only that, both home and international students are equally at home in the institution. For most students, regardless of their nationality, UCL is an institution that just happens to be located in London. Period.  In short, students at UCL are already culturally integrated, and for the time they are at UCL at least, nationality counts for nothing.

London Elite Universities and the Global Social Elites

There is compelling evidence that London elite universities are recruiting elite students worldwide. Entry requirements for both home and international students are equally demanding. In fact entry requirements are so demanding that just being offered a place to study at an elite university in London is a mark of honour worthy of celebration for prospective students, whether home or international. In addition, London is expensive, and the globally elite London universities charge significantly high international student fees (Table 2). In fact, such is the pressure for entry into these institutions that it is quite likely that if these institutions were to charge home students the same astronomical fees that they charge to international students, they would still be oversubscribed.Needless to say, London elite universities are now in the business of educating the next generation of the global elites.

Luthra and Platt have recently published a paper on Pakistani international students studying in London universities. The data for their research is drawn from the international survey project on Socio-cultural Integration Processes among New immigrants in Europe (SCIP). In summary, their study concludes that international students are not homogeneous, but that they comprise an elite student class and a middling student class. According to Luthra and Platt, the elite student class is made up of students from the upper levels of society, and these elite students come to London to accumulate the necessary human, social and cultural capital they need to enhance their competitive advantage over other social classes.

It is my contention that whether by design or by accident, London elite universities have transformed into finishing schools for the global elite. In these finishing schools, children of the global elite meet together and build the international networks that will enable them to maintain their status in the whole world. In such a scenario, national boundaries count for little. The world is one, and the soon-to-be global elites are one diverse social class with shared interests and objectives.

Table 2: Annual Tuition Fees for Selected London-based Universities (Taken from institutional websites)

London-based UniversityWorld Ranking


(Times Higher Education)

Annual tuition fee  for 2016-17 (GBP)
Imperial College London826 750
University College London1422 380
King’s College London2721 750
Brunel401-50017 200
Kingston601-80013 000
Greenwich601-80011 200

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