British educators call for Brexit clarity

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • The 2017/18 admissions cycle is now open for British universities and educators are calling for clear assurances from government as to fees and student loan provisions for EU students beginning their studies in fall 2017
  • In the meantime, there was a notable spike in short-term enrolments by EU students in the UK this summer
  • British universities are also projecting stable EU enrolments this fall, but are concerned that student numbers may fall off next year unless pressing questions about fees and student loan policies are soon resolved

The annual European Association for International Education (EAIE) conference was held in Liverpool last week. It was the first major international education conference in Europe following the UK’s referendum on EU membership last June, and so also an important forum for educators still struggling with the uncertainty of the Brexit result.

The conference featured a special panel discussion – “#Brexit: The future of Europe and the UK” – with senior university officials from the UK, Europe, and the US. The panelists were unanimous in expressing their continuing commitment to internationalisation and to ongoing collaboration in a post-Brexit world. But they acknowledged too the considerable uncertainty that has been introduced with respect to the UK’s participation in European research programmes, and also for EU students and faculty in the UK.

Janet Beer, vice-chancellor at the University of Liverpool and a member of the EAIE panel, noted that her institution alone has nearly 650 European faculty, and that the Brexit vote had already impacted staffing in Liverpool with some foreign academics opting not to take up planned appointments at the university in the months since.

Indeed, the need for clarity on policy and process for research funding as well as faculty and student mobility is now looming large in the UK. Shortly before the EAIE conference, Dame Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK (UUK) and vice-chancellor of the University of Kent, underscored the urgency of the issue and reaffirmed the association’s focus “on the understandable anxiety among the 125,000 EU students and the 43,000 EU staff in our universities.”

Speaking at the UUK annual conference in Nottingham on 7 September, she pointed out that the applications cycle for the 2017/18 academic year had opened the day before. With the UK still in the EU, European students pay the same fees at British institutions as do domestic students, and they are able to access the same student loans programme. Now at issue is the question as to whether or not fees or student loan supports for EU students will change as the UK’s Brexit negotiations unfold.

With the 2017/18 admissions cycle now underway, Dame Julia pointed out, “We need to be able to let prospective EU students know now that they will pay the same fees and have access to the same financial support arrangements for the duration of their courses. The problem is not the period when the UK is still within the EU, when current rules will continue to apply, but what can be said now about courses which continue post-exiting the EU.”

“Put simply, universities are currently unable to answer two crucial questions that are being frequently asked by prospective EU students considering whether to apply for to start courses in the UK in autumn 2017. What fees will you charge for any years of my course which are post the date of exit? Will I be able to access any financial support?”

The issue, she added, is urgent, particularly as “EU students are almost twice as likely as UK students to apply very early for those courses with October deadlines,” but also one that could be addressed by the British government through clear assurances for EU students beginning their studies in 2016, 2017, or 2018.

A spike for summer and stability this fall

In the wake of the June referendum, the British government, along with a number of UK universities, were quick to clarify that current fee and loan policies would remain in place for EU students beginning their studies this year. And now with the new academic year underway, a number of institutions are reporting that their EU enrolments are largely unchanged for fall 2016. The Wall Street Journal recently surveyed a number of UK institutions, including University College London and the London School of Economics, and all are projecting stable EU numbers this year.

This projection is backed by Home Office immigration data indicating a pronounced spike in short-term study visas in the second quarter of this year. Britain issued 80% more short-term visas for students from April to June than it did in the same period for 2015, perhaps reflecting student interest in completing planned studies before the UK’s exit from the EU.

Additional data from Student.com supports this observation of a short-term spike in EU student traffic to the UK this summer. The student housing service reports a 169% increase in European student bookings in Britain for July 2016 (compared to July 2015), and, in particular a year-over-year doubling of bookings by students from France, Spain, and Germany.

Conversely, however, the number of long-term study visas issued during the second quarter declined by 4% year-on-year, and that is the metric that many educators will watch closely now as we move through the 2016/17 academic year.

As in Dame Julia’s call for urgent government action earlier this month, the real question now will be how any continuing uncertainty around fees or access to loans will affect EU enrolment in the UK in 2017. “We don’t know what the minister and the [student loans agency] will tell us about the 2017 intake,” said Vincenzo Raimo, the pro vice chancellor for global engagement at the University of Reading, shortly after the June vote. “It’s really important that before we start the new recruitment cycle that we try to get some clarity around that. If there is no clarity, then it is very likely that the numbers of undergraduate students coming from continental Europe will fall. We risk a fall in the number of students coming from continental Europe, but we also risk a wider impact on international student recruitment in general as a result of some of the negative messages that have been given about Britain [during the referendum campaign].”



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