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Brexit could discourage international students from choosing UK

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Two recently published studies point to the likelihood that the UK would be a less attractive study destination in the event of a vote to leave the European Union
  • Nearly half of respondents to one survey said that the UK would be less attractive following a Brexit
  • Another study of two million university leavers in the UK finds that EU students are particularly high performing, and represent a significant resource for the British economy
  • The study’s authors project that the uncertainty arising from a British exit would almost certainly discourage some EU students from taking up studies in the UK or staying on after graduation

Two new studies are adding some heft to earlier speculation that a UK exit from the EU – or “Brexit” – could make Britain a less attractive study destination.

There is only a month remaining before the UK’s 23 June referendum on its membership in the European Union. Voters will be asked, “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” And, while the latest polls suggest some momentum in favour of the “stay” vote in recent weeks, many expect the final vote to be close.

To help measure student attitudes on the question, Hobsons put a special UK survey into the field as part of its annual International Study Survey. The additional survey asked more than 10,000 foreign students for their views on the prospect of Britain leaving the EU.

Roughly half (47%) of the 1,763 respondents – each of which had already either applied to or inquired with one of 15 UK universities – said a Brexit would make the UK a less attractive study destination. Nearly one in five (17%), however, said they would find the UK more attractive outside of the EU, while another 35% said a British exit would make no difference to them.

Looking more closely at those who considered Britain less attractive outside of the EU, the survey found the sentiment to be especially strong among European students: 82% of prospective EU students said a Brexit would make the UK less appealing compared to 35% of non-EU students.

The Higher Education Statistics Agency counts 240,767 international students in British higher education for 2014/15, including 60,955 from the EU and 179,812 from outside of Europe. Referring to the nearly half of respondents who said a post-Brexit UK would be less attractive, Hobsons estimates that translates into more than 113,000 foreign students – about 50,000 EU students and another 63,000 from outside the EU – that could be “at risk of being put off” study in Britain, with a potential loss of international student fees of up to £690 million (US$998 million).

This is admittedly a worst-case scenario based on the survey findings, but the unmistakable implication in the students’ responses is that the attractiveness of the UK would be diminished following an exit from the EU.

“For universities in the UK, the market is tougher than ever before, and growth can no longer be depended on,” said Hobsons EMEA Managing Director Jeremy Cooper. “The UK higher education sector has faced major challenges but international students still represent a significant, strategic opportunity for UK universities. In terms of the EU, the results of this survey demonstrate precisely what scale the impact of the EU referendum could be felt on.”

A further report from the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) extends the point with its headline: “Brexit risk of losing the best and brightest graduates working in British industries.” The research follows data for more than two million graduates of UK universities, and it finds that EU students are among the strongest performers in UK universities. They are more likely to earn a first-class degree than their British colleagues, and twice as likely to go on to post-graduate studies.

“The European Union students at UK universities are clearly the best and the brightest in their class,” said Dr Renee Luthra, one of the study’s authors. “They represent a significantly well-qualified group of graduate workers entering the UK workforce. This is especially true of undergraduates, as those EU students who study and remain in the UK to work are very high performing.”

Echoing the student perspective in the Hobsons study, the researchers conclude that “it is likely that Brexit would reduce the flow of these high performing students in a variety of ways.” It mainly points to uncertainty around a British exit as a force that would discourage students from taking up studies in the UK, or from remaining in the country after graduation.

But the authors note as well that EU research funding from 2007-2013 provided a net gain of £2.7 billion for Britain, and that reduced access to such EU funds would likely lead to a corresponding reduction in funding for EU post-graduates in the UK.

“Understanding what Brexit would mean for EU domiciled students in higher education, and the knock on effects on the graduate labour force, is a complicated question,” adds the report. “We do not know how leaving the EU would affect fees and visa requirements for EU students wanting to study in the UK, nor how hard it would be, post-Brexit, for EU domiciled students that had been allowed to study in the UK to then stay on after graduation to work here. However, we can safely assume that the process of negotiating exit from the EU would create a period of significant uncertainty, complicate the procedures of recruitment for education and work, and could well make the UK a less desirable place to study during the period of transition.”

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