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Growing evidence of Brexit’s impact on EU students

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • A trio of new studies finds that uncertainty and doubt around the Brexit process is already having an impact on the study and travel plans for foreign visitors and students
  • The effect is particularly noticeable within Europe where students are showing increasing interest in alternate destinations in the wake of the Brexit vote
  • Some of the impact of this shift will be blunted in the short term as students move to begin their studies before the UK actually exists the EU, and/or to take advantage of the declining British pound

How will Brexit influence student mobility within and around Europe? That is one of the big questions arising from the 23 June 2016 referendum that saw Britain vote to leave the European Union.

We received an early and very telling answer early this year when UCAS (the UK’s Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) reported that EU applications to UK higher education institutions had fallen by 7% for 2017/18.

And now a trio of new studies adds to the growing body of evidence of shifting perspectives and destination preferences among EU students, with QS Quacquarelli Symonds, Hotcourses, and BETA all publishing new research within the last month.

Drawing on 100 interviews and 1,000 responses to a student survey across ten European countries, QS concludes that EU students are pessimistic about the impact of Brexit on their career, and that this pessimism is deterring them from UK study. QS adds, “Where students do not express pessimism, they express uncertainty about visa regulations, work permits, and EU funding grants. The findings provide a reminder to the UK government that clarity of intention is necessary if the UK is to avoid seeing its market share of international students drop.”

“It was clear that the uncertainty of Brexit was already impacting upon student decisions, with very few student interviewees feeling that any positive benefits are to be derived from the decision,” observes primary study author Dasha Karzunina.

These broad findings aside, the QS survey also reveals that opinion on Brexit is as split throughout the EU as it is within the UK. Millennial respondents were especially concerned about any new restrictions on student and labour mobility within Europe, but others see an opportunity in the declining post-Brexit performance of the British pound. In a further echo of the uncertainty that many Britons now face, many respondents also said that the uncertain progress and outcomes of the Brexit process was one of the more significant issues for them. “A large proportion of applicants felt unsure as to what impact Brexit would have on not just themselves, but the UK’s higher education system more broadly,” notes the report. “They attributed blame to the UK government, citing a lack of transparency and communication on the matter, which has subsequently left them caught up in a guessing game. As a result, many were dissuaded from studying in the UK, fearing the potential risks associated with Brexit.”

“Someone needs to send a clear message to the EU and the world that the UK is open and will not treat European students any differently,” added one Spanish respondent.

This uncertainty revolves particularly around financial questions, especially in terms of tuition fees for EU students in the UK. Many students indicate that they are still attracted to the UK by the quality and variety of higher education programmes on offer. However, the report also points out that, “If no new post-Brexit fee agreement is reached between the UK and the EU, EU students will be charged full ‘international’ fees, which are much higher. Another potential implication of this change is that EU students will no longer be eligible for domestic loans to fund their tuition. This will remove a major method of degree financing, meaning that students wishing to study in the UK will be reliant on their families, private loans or scholarships. Considering that the UK’s domestic fees are already the highest in Europe, the likelihood of EU students wanting to pay rates substantially higher, without the benefit of government loans, is questionable.”

Tracking search behaviour

Given the increasing prominence of online channels in study abroad planning by prospective students, any notable shifts in search behaviour are now in themselves an important early indicator of changing patterns of demand. Education search portal provider Hotcourses released new findings this week that compare search volumes in the year leading up to the Brexit vote with those for the year after the June 2016 referendum.

Drawing on the search activity of more than 34 million prospective students, Hotcourses observes that the UK’s global share of search volume declined from 28% in the year before the Brexit vote to 25.6% in the year after.

Looking just at Europe, however, overall search volumes for the UK fell more sharply: from 36.9% to 30.7% (with some variance by country and by level of study). In broad strokes, the UK is losing share among prospective students with Ireland and Canada as the big gainers so far. Ireland’s share of European prospects (among leading English-speaking destinations) increased from 11.4% to 20.9% while Canada’s grew from 2.7% to 4.6%.

Hotcourses Director of Insights Aaron Porter adds, “Canada has seen a surge in global demand over the last 12 months, increasing its global share from 4.9% to 10.6%. In India, it has increased to over 20% of global searches, and in 2017 is now the most-searched-for destination country. Clearly the early moves from the [government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau] to be a more welcoming destination for international students are paying immediate dividends.”

Youth travel another indicator

BETA (British Educational Travel Association) has also weighed in with its own recent study, and it too finds a declining trend in youth travel to the UK. “Unhelpful visa restrictions, the high costs of accommodation and living in the UK and an apparent unfriendly impression caused by Brexit and the controversy over immigration has seen one in five of those initially wanting to come to the UK opt for other destinations,” says the association.

BETA highlights that spending by young travellers declined in 2016 for the first time, and that the number of visitors dropped below 2014 levels. The significance of this rests with the fact that young travellers account for nearly 40% of all travel to the UK. In 2016, youth and student travel to the UK amounted to just under 15 million arrivals with direct spending of more than £22 billion (US$28.5 billion).

“International travel for the younger generation is not a bucket list wish, it is a high priority, and it provides powerful life experiences, cultural awareness and is an education in itself,” said BETA Chairman Steve Lowy. “The UK has a quality product but it is not growing at the pace it once did and competitor destinations are thriving, threatening our world class industry.”

The three studies from QS, Hotcourses, and BETA underscore the importance of clarity and certainty around the Brexit process, and of conveying a message of openness and welcome for international visitors and prospective students. These latest findings provide additional insight into how the present uncertainty and doubt around the UK’s exit from the EU is affecting travel and study plans, particularly for those in Europe. Within the UK, educators and other stakeholders continue to lobby the government on this very point, most recently in the form of Universities UK’s briefing paper which set out its priorities for the Brexit process.

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