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Early indications of a notable drop in EU enrolment in the UK

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • The number of EU students applying for the first admissions cycle for the 2017/18 academic year in Britain has fallen by 9% this year
  • This represents a relatively small percentage of overall admissions – the application deadline for most programmes is 15 January – but is nevertheless being linked to the pending Brexit process in the UK
  • A parliamentary inquiry has recently released similar findings, pointing to widespread concern and uncertainty as to how the UK’s exit from the European Union will impact the country’s higher education institutions

New data from the UK’s Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) reveals a 9% drop in the number of European Union students applying for admission to British universities this year. That equates to a drop of 620 applicants for the admissions cycle that closed on 15 October. UCAS is careful to note, however, that the programmes that close their admissions on that date represent a relatively small slice of British higher education.

In fact, the 15 October deadline applies only for applicants to medical, dentistry, and veterinary degrees, as well as for all programmes at the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford.

“Typically, only 10% of eventual applicants apply by this stage so the full picture of demand for UK higher education, including from EU students, will only be clear after the main January deadline,” said UCAS Chief Executive Mary Curnock Cook. The main deadline that Ms Cook refers to is 15 January 2017, at which point most remaining UK programmes will close their admissions for 2017/18. The data for that larger admissions cycle will be available from UCAS in early February.

UCAS notes as well that the decline in EU applicants this year effectively shrinks the European applicant pool closer to that of the 2015/16 admissions cycle – in the process negating an 8% increase in EU applicants in last year’s cycle.

UCAS reports a total of 57,190 applicants for the cycle closing on 15 October, an overall increase of 1% over last year, and it notes as well that non-EU applications also increased by 1% during the current cycle.

The Brexit effect

International educators will be watching UK admissions data closely this year on the heels of June’s Brexit vote, and the drop in EU applicants for the October cycle is generally seen as an early indicator of Brexit-related uncertainty. “The UCAS process for accepting applications for 2017 opened on 6 September but the government guarantee on fees and financial support for EU students for 2017 entry was not provided until 11 October, only days before the October deadline,” Universities UK Chief Executive Nicola Dandridge said recently to The Guardian. “To avoid future uncertainty, we need the government to extend these transitional arrangements now for EU students considering applying for courses starting in 2018. These prospective European students will soon be starting to consider whether to apply to study at British universities.”

As we reported earlier, just days before the 15 October deadline UK Universities Minister Jo Johnson announced that European Union students applying to begin studies at an English university for the 2017/18 academic year would continue to be eligible for student loans and grants for the duration of their studies. The Minister also indicated that EU students commencing in 2017/18 would continue to pay the same tuition fees as British students throughout their studies, even if the UK exits the European Union during that period.

In a related development, the British Parliament’s Education Committee published evidence last week that it collected during its current inquiry into the impact on higher education of an exit from the European Union. The Committee received 190 written submissions, including testimony from universities, employers, scholars, and students.

“This written evidence from university leaders, academics, businesses and others highlights the degree of concern about the fate of UK universities post-Brexit,” said the Committee Chair Neil Carmichael. “The evidence raises a variety of issues relating to freedom of movement, including the prospects for recruiting EU students post-Brexit and the future rights of EU staff to live and work in the UK. Concerns are also raised about how to maintain the UK as an attractive destination for EU and international students, about the financial viability of universities, and the need to ensure Britain can continue to compete on the international stage as a provider of world-class university education.”

“In our inquiry, we are determined to examine the opportunities for higher education post-Brexit and consider what the Government’s priorities should be for the sector going into the negotiations with the EU. It’s crucial that we don’t allow Brexit to become a catastrophe for our university sector.”

In its submission, the Russell Group, which represents 24 leading research-intensive institutions in the UK, highlighted the significant uncertainty that remains around the Brexit process.

It called for further clarification from the British government with respect to work rights for EU staff and their dependents, tuition rates and funding support for EU students beginning their studies in 2018/19 or after, and the UK’s participation in Erasmus+ after 2017.

Another striking submission came from the University of Cambridge which characterised the Brexit process as posing “a significant risk to higher education and research activities in the UK”. University officials reported a 14.1% drop in EU admissions applications for the 2017/18 academic year (against an overall 3.2% increase in applications), and acknowledged that they were modelling a post-Brexit drop of up to two-thirds in EU enrolment in their current enrolment forecasts.

Recent figures from Universities UK indicate there are roughly 125,000 EU students enrolled in the UK currently – representing about 5.5% of total higher education enrolment in the country – and a further 43,000 European staff in British universities.

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