The “Brexit effect”: where are EU students going instead of the UK?
Universities across the UK finally felt the long-anticipated hit of Brexit when applications from EU students dropped sharply last year.
As the UK’s higher education sector turns to other corners of the world to make up for these waning numbers, universities across Europe have experienced a sudden increase in demand.
But is their new-found popularity due to the so-called “Brexit effect”? Or, with many countries were already experiencing a long-term growth in student numbers, would this have happened anyway?
The PIE News set out to investigate where European students are choosing to study instead of the UK. As it turns out, the answer is anything but simple…
How has Brexit changed study in the UK?
Approximately 40% less EU students applied to UK universities through UCAS in 2021 than in 2020 according to statistics released by UCAS in January.
Since the beginning of the 2021-22 academic year, European students can no longer claim home-fee status or access tuition fee loans and instead face paying international tuition fees.
Depending on the university and course, studying in the UK can now cost students from Europe up to £40,000 per year.
They have also lost access to the UK’s student finance system and the automatic right to work in the UK, creating uncertainty around post-graduation employment options.
Research into the impact of Brexit on EU student mobility found that applications dropped the most among those “originating from countries with weaker labour markets and economies for whom the ability to stay in the UK after their studies might have been a critical pull factor”.
“The biggest drops of EU students were in Eastern Europe,” says Ludovic Highman, associate professor in higher education management at the University of Bath, who noted Romania, Lithuania and Bulgaria as examples.
Where are students going instead?
Analysts identify certain factors that students who would have studied in the UK pre-Brexit may look for when weighing up potential study destinations.
“The countries with a strong offer of programs in English are more likely to pick up students who would have chosen the UK”
Highman points to affordability and post-graduation employment options as important factors, particularly for students from countries with weaker economies.
“The countries with a strong offer of programs in English are more likely to pick up students who would have chosen the UK,” explains David Crosier, higher education analyst at Eurydice, an EU body for education system research.
“Fees, cost of living, all of those aspects will be a factor. But so too will the quality of student experience [and] the geographical situation. Students probably make choices a lot around whether the place seems attractive to them in terms of city and culture.”
But knowing for certain where students who may have studied in the UK pre-Brexit are now choosing to study instead is complicated.
“It’s impossible to know precisely because you don’t know what students’ individual intentions were, or would have been, so it’s all hypothetical,” says Crosier. “Brexit is one factor amongst many factors, and the problem is that you can’t separate them out.”
One example of this conundrum comes from Germany. In December 2021, DAAD, the German academic exchange service, reported an increase in the number of international students attending German universities and noted significant growth from European countries including Italy and France.
“Brexit is one factor amongst many factors, and the problem is that you can’t separate them out”
But, as Jan Kercher, senior researcher at DAAD, notes: “We don’t know if any of these students would have studied in the UK or if there would have been less international students in Germany without Brexit.”
“Germany is only one alternative study destination to the UK, so I think it’s impossible to say how big the Brexit effect in Germany or other study destinations is.”
So while some countries are showing significant growth, which may be down to the “Brexit effect”, it is important to caveat this assumption with the fact that we will never know for sure whether students may have chosen to study elsewhere had the situation been different.
Record numbers of international students enrolled at Dutch universities in the 2021/22 academic year, according to Nuffic, the Dutch government body for internationalisation in education.
Some 72% of these came from countries in the European Economic Area (which includes all EU countries, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway, but does not include the UK).
Nuffic said that the number of students originating from Romania rose significantly between 2020 and 2021 – one of the countries with a weaker labour market that saw a decrease in outward mobility to the UK.
In a 2021 survey of 526 prospective international students, Nuffic found that only 10 respondents from EEA countries selected the UK as a potential destination for their studies in Europe. Of these 10 students, eight were “more likely” to choose the Netherlands “as a result of Brexit”.
“EU students increasingly see Irish universities as a high-quality destination”
Much like Germany, Ireland has also experienced a surge in students from the EU, with universities recording increases in European student registration numbers of up to 34%.
“The data shows that EU students increasingly see Irish universities as a high-quality destination where – as fellow EU citizens — they can continue to benefit from the same terms and conditions, including fees, as Irish students,” Lewis Purser, director of learning, teaching and academic affairs at the Irish Universities Association told The Times.
Outside of Europe, analysis from Applyboard cited Brexit as one reason behind a rise in the number of European international students choosing to study in Canada.
Figures from the Canadian government found a 10-80% increase in the number of study permit holders from Western European countries, according to Times Higher Education.
“European students who previously would’ve opted to take advantage of reduced tuition fees at UK institutions are now casting their search wider, pursuing education opportunities in Canada,” Applyboard wrote in a blog post.
Will international education change after Brexit?
In the UK, Highman thinks the shift in recruitment focus to countries outside of the EU will damage the student experience.
“A lot of senior management teams and universities don’t really care about EU students”
“A lot of senior management teams and universities don’t really care about EU students, or that there are drops in Eastern European numbers, because they can replace them with students from Malaysia or China or the UAE,” Highman says.
“You get these courses where students come from predominantly one or two countries, and there’s no diversity. You don’t get the diversity you used to have.”
Meanwhile, in Europe, some universities are concerned about the influx of international students. In the Netherlands, universities have asked the government to allow them to introduce caps on the number of students they accept.
“The number of international students is growing too fast to keep the quality of education high and the workload manageable,” Ruben Puylaert, spokesperson for Universities of the Netherlands, told The PIE News earlier this month.
Similarly, politicians in Denmark last year agreed to move international student places away from major cities and to reduce the number of courses taught in English, amid concerns about the growing number of students from the EU receiving Danish funding.
“The vast majority of students are not mobile”
But Crosier argues that increased student mobility across the EU should be seen as an opportunity, rather than a burden.
“The vast majority of students are not mobile, so it’s important to not overstate the phenomenon,” Crosier says. “It’s not that problematic for systems to cope with, certainly at those kind of numbers that we have in Europe.
“They’ve got an opportunity. They’ve chosen to be open and attractive as a European system, which is good.”
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