Brexit could discourage European students from studying in UK

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • There are 125,000 European students enrolled in British universities currently
  • Universities UK estimates they generate £3.7 billion (US$5.25 billion) in economic impact and support more than 34,000 jobs
  • As the 23 June referendum on the UK’s EU membership looms, speculation is increasing as to how a British exit ("Brexit") from the EU could affect European enrolment in the country
  • Other English-speaking destinations - the US, Canada, and Australia in particular - may see their competitive position in Europe strengthen further if the vote goes in favour of a Brexit

Britain is steaming toward a 23 June referendum on the UK’s membership in the European Union. The question is simple and clearly framed – “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” – and the latest opinion polls continue to give a very slight edge to the “stay” vote.

As we have reported previously, British educators have lined up firmly in support of the UK’s continued membership in the EU. Most argue that a British exit (or “Brexit”) will impede access to European research funding, discourage European faculty from teaching in the UK, and lead to a decline in foreign enrolment in British institutions.

There has been more discussion of late about how a Brexit would impact European student numbers in the UK. Universities UK reports there were about 125,000 EU students at British higher education institutions in 2013/14, representing 5% of total university enrolment in the country. Nearly half of the students come from the five leading sending markets in Europe: Germany (13,675), France (11,955), Ireland (10,905), Italy (10,525), and Greece (10,130).

With Britain in the EU, those students are treated as domestic students. They pay the same fees as British students and have access to the same financial aid. In the event of a Brexit, UK universities would be entitled to charge EU students differential fees, and many of the supports currently in place, including student loans and the massive Erasmus+ mobility programme would fall away.

And the stakes are significant. Universities UK estimates that EU students in the UK generate £3.7 billion (US$5.25 billion) in economic impact and support more than 34,000 jobs. Dame Julia Mary Goodfellow, President of Universities UK and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Kent, said, “EU students make an enormous contribution to British university life and local communities. The figures show clearly that EU students spend money and create jobs in all regions and corners of the UK. EU students also make a very important academic and cultural contribution to university life, creating an international, outward-looking culture on campuses which, in turn, benefits UK students.”

She added, “Leaving the EU and putting up barriers to work and study makes it more likely that European students and researchers will choose to go elsewhere, strengthening our competitors and weakening the UK’s universities.”

Where will they go?

Nobody is imagining that those 125,000 European students will simply disappear overnight or that all will choose to study somewhere else than the UK. However, it is reasonable to imagine that a Brexit will make the UK less attractive to European students. There will be less financial aid, tuitions would likely increase, the UK will be outside of Erasmus+, and new immigration requirements may arise. All that to say, a British exit from the EU would certainly open the door to the UK’s international competitors.

“It would be reckless to cut ourselves off from the rich sources of EU funding, the access to valuable shared research facilities and the close institutional ties that provide so many opportunities to British students and academics,” said Universities and Science Minster Jo Johnson. “I share the clear view of my predecessors and the majority of university leaders that our world-class universities and our scientific prowess will be much better off inside the EU.”

A recent item in The Australian newspaper picks up the theme, and notes that other major English-speaking destinations, including Australia, Canada, and the US, may have the most to gain in the wake of a Brexit.

“[A British exit] would be absolutely great news for Australia because we are competing directly with the Brits for foreign students who want to study in an English language environment,” said Phil Honeywood, executive director of the International Education Association of Australia. “One huge advantage that British universities and private schools have over us has been a guaranteed market from continental Europe, and if they turn their back then we will be at the front of the queue to welcome those students.”

As Mr Honeywood’s remarks suggest, competing English-speaking destinations may be prepared to step up their recruiting in Europe, particularly in the context of recent declines in scholarship funding from major emerging markets such as Brazil, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria.

In contrast to many such markets, Europe sends relatively few students to destinations such as Australia. There are 17,810 European students in Australia currently. Italy is the largest EU sending market for Australian institutions but ranks only 19th among source countries. Other major European markets factor lower still, including France (24th), Spain (25th), and Germany (26th).

Even so, Lucy Shackleton, EU campaign manager for Univer­sities UK, feels that Australia has benefited from the UK’s reduced competitiveness in recent years, particularly the more restrictive immigration and post-study work policies introduced since 2011.

“Nobody is arguing that all 125,000 of our EU students will suddenly cease coming to the UK,” she says. “But if we make things harder for them then a lot of them will certainly look to countries like Australia and Canada.”



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