Report seeks to measure the “Brexit sensitivity” of prospective students

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • New survey findings reinforce that the UK’s pending exit from the European Union continue to have an impact on the country’s attractiveness to foreign students
  • This effect is especially pronounced among EU students, with nearly four in ten saying that Brexit makes it less likely that they would choose to study in the UK
  • A major factor remains how welcoming the UK is perceived to be for international students, and the study highlights that this can be heavily influenced by government policy

An advance data release from the QS International Student Survey 2019 reaffirms the prevailing views of prospective students with respect to the UK’s pending departure from the European Union.

The 2019 edition of the survey gathered responses from more than 75,000 prospective international students around the world, including just over 23,500 who said they were considering study in the UK.

Survey findings released today highlight that the sensitivity of potential students to Brexit is markedly different by region. More than a third of students (36%) from other EU countries said they would be less likely to study in the UK because of Brexit. QS notes that, “This figure suggests the number of EU students ‘at risk’ of choosing a different study destination than the UK is approximately 20,000. The potential loss of such a pool of students poses a significant financial threat to UK universities and would take the number of EU students in the UK down to their lowest levels for at least five years.”

“Even using conservative estimates of the average fees paid by undergraduate and postgraduate EU students…the ‘at risk’ income from first year fees along would reach £169 million per annum.”

eu-enrolment-in-british-higher-education-2006/07–2017/18
EU enrolment in British higher education, 2006/07–2017/18. Source: HESA

This Brexit effect is less pronounced for students outside of the EU, and the survey found that prospects from the Middle East and North Africa, along with those from many Commonwealth countries, are in fact more likely to pursue studies the UK post-exit.

More broadly, the survey finds that student concerns around Brexit can be placed in two categories: financial worries and perceptions as to how welcoming the UK is for international students.

The first point – financial implications – points to the ongoing uncertainty around EU student fees after Britain leaves the European Union. The government had previously assured EU students of continuing “home fee” status through 2019/20 – that is, they would continue to pay the same fees and would remain eligible for the same financial aid as British students.

In fact, the UK government extended this assurance just yesterday when, in a 28 May announcement, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation Chris Skidmore confirmed that home fee status for visiting EU students would also apply for those beginning their studies in 2020/21. “We know that students will be considering their university options for next year already,” said the minister. “Which is why we are confirming now that eligible EU nationals will continue to benefit from home fee status and can access financial support for the 2020/21 academic year, so they have the certainty they need to make their choice.”

Even so, the QS survey highlights that confusion remains around fee status for EU students after a British exit. Even before this week’s announcement regarding 2020/21 fees, only six in ten EU survey respondents said that they were aware they would be eligible for home fee status for studies beginning in the 2019/20 academic year.

Concerns around how welcoming the UK remains for international students remain a key factor for prospective students, both those within the EU and those outside of Europe. However, QS notes that this issue – while still the primary concern for non-EU students (and the second-leading concern for European students) – appears to be easing this year. In 2018, nearly six in ten prospects (57%) said they were less interested in the UK because they perceived that the country was less welcoming to international students. In this year’s survey, however, that percentage dropped down to 49%.

Work opportunities

The advance QS release also highlights the importance of post-study work opportunities in the decision process for prospective students. “Compared to other markets,” notes the report, “the UK has one of the strictest systems in place for international students after they graduate. The standard current visa limits international graduates to just four months to find a job, a comparatively short amount of time given that Australia and Germany give international graduates 18 months and Canada allows them 36 months to find a job.”

To test the market response to a more competitive UK offer in this respect, QS asked respondents how a change in post-study work limits from the current four months to a (hypothetical) 12 months would influence their decision around studying in the UK. Over three quarters (77%) of prospective students in the survey said that such a change would make them more likely to study in the UK. “The overwhelming response here suggests that engaging in this strategy could be an effective tool in combatting some of the negative perceptions that surround Brexit and would help reinforce the message that the UK truly is welcoming to international students.”

As the survey results suggest, any such policy decisions by any government send powerful market signals, not only of (as in this example) concrete opportunities to stay and work after studies but also of how welcoming and open the host country is to visiting students.

Writing in a foreword to the QS report, British Member of Parliament, and Secretary of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Students, Nicky Morgan says, “As the UK prepares to leave the European Union, it is more important than ever that we remain globally facing and open for business, within and especially beyond the EU…There is growing competition from many countries [and] a real risk that we lose global market share in a crucial growth industry…When it comes to our enviable university reputation, we must ensure that the system continues to allow international students to study here, contribute to our economy, and enrich our universities.”

Such policy questions will no doubt remain at the centre of the early planning and implementation of a new International Education Strategy announced by the UK government in March 2019. The strategy sets out ambitious goals to attract 600,000 international students by 2030, and to greatly increase the value of its education exports and to nearly double the value of education exports to £35 billion (US$46 billion) in the process.

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