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21st Jul 2021

UK: Crash in EU applicants for higher ed offset by continued growth from outside Europe

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • The volume of students applying to British higher education from within the EU has declined -43% this year
  • However, non-EU applicant volumes increased by more than 14% and overall international student revenues are forecast to climb sharply through 2024/25

The UK application registry UCAS has released its latest round of applicant data following the 30 June deadline for undergraduate applications for the 2021/22 academic year.

The numbers show two very distinct – and very different trend lines: far fewer students from within the EU are applying for admission to British higher education institutions; but that decline is being buffered, at least in part, by continued growth from outside the European Union.

Overall application volumes (from non-UK students) have held relatively steady over the past five years, with 30 June totals ranging from roughly 120,000 to 130,000 annually. That pattern is holding true for 2021 as well with a total of 130,400 application files opened by foreign students as of this year's deadline.

30 June application deadline volumes by domicile. Source: UCAS

The big difference this year is in how that total is composed. The number of EU applicants fell from 49,650 in 2020 to 28,400 this year (-43%). The number of non-EU filings, however, climbed from 89,130 to 102,000 (+14%).

"The number of students from central and eastern European countries looking to study an undergraduate degree in the UK this autumn has gone into free fall amid changes to fees and funding brought about by Brexit," reported Times Higher Education. "Applicant numbers from Croatia, Poland, Slovakia and Bulgaria have seen the biggest percentage falls, of between 72 and 74%. Together these countries made up about 16% of EU applicants last year; now the proportion is only 6%."

In contrast, the drop in applications from Western Europe has been less severe, with relatively modest declines from important sending countries such as France, Germany, and Spain.

The latest UCAS data is giving new credence to a February 2021 analysis prepared for the UK Department of Education that projected 57% fewer EU commencements in UK higher education institutions as a direct result of the Brexit process. This September marks the first academic year for which EU students will no longer have “home fee status," which has until now allowed them to pay the same tuition fees (and access the same funding supports) as UK students.

That February analysis pegged the price of that decline at £62.5 million (USD $85.9 million) in lost tuition fees alone. A more recent analysis from the UK Office for Students forecasts that, "Recruitment from within the EU is expected to decline by 34.8% [through 2024/25] following the withdrawal of student loan entitlement for EU students from 2021/22."

However, and as the UCAS data suggests as well, those declines are likely to be overmatched by growing numbers of enrolments from outside Europe, and the relatively higher fees paid by non-EU students. The Office of Students balances its projections with the overall view that, "In the longer term providers predict that overseas fee income will rise by 46.6% between 2020/21 and 2024/25."

And, for the moment at least, the non-EU source markets driving that growth are not surprising. China was the largest sender outside of the EU with 28,490 applications this year (+17% year-over-year), followed by India (9,930 applications and 30% growth). The US and Nigeria also accounted for notable increases in application volumes, with 53% and 66% growth respectively.

UCAS Chief Executive Clare Marchant commented, "Today’s numbers show the clear demand for undergraduate study and apprenticeships is growing, rising significantly during the pandemic. Universities are ready to welcome more students onto courses this autumn and have worked hard to be flexible, enabling students to progress to their next level of study."

For additional background, please see:

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