A narrower, more parochial UK?

In the current debate over whether the United Kingdom should remain in the European Union or leave, issues concerning international students have not featured large. These temporary residents have not been seen as problematic by sections of the public keen to see a reduction in net migration and are not perceived in the same way as other ‘immigrants’.

But the much higher cost of study in the UK for EU-students would have a negative impact on this largest group of international students, while the government has already put increasing obstacles in the way of those from outside the EU wishing to study in the UK and removed attractive Post-Study Work Visas. It has also steadfastly refused to remove students from ‘net migration’ figures, which are at the root of much concern in the referendum debate.

The referendum is being held at a time of austerity and in the context of the refugee crisis, which has become a touchstone for those concerned about mass migration, so it is unsurprising perhaps that immigration has become the key focus for 'Leave' campaigners as it touches a public nerve. So EU and international students are caught up in the migration issue by default rather than by intention.

Could a vote to leave the EU have a significant impact on UK universities and their recruitment of EU and international students, and what would be the effect on UK students? Which countries would benefit in the competition for international students if Brexit happens?

Lower fees

EU citizens who study in the UK are currently treated the same as home students, having access to lower fees (which vary in the constituent countries of the UK) and are subject to the same repayment terms as UK students – after graduation and on reaching a certain salary level.

According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, there were around 125,000 non-British, EU students in the UK in 2014-15, about 5% of the total student body, and, taken together, they constituted the largest group among international students.

Universities for Europe, the Universities UK campaign group, argues that in 2011–12, the last year for which data are available, EU students studying in the UK generated £3.7 billion (US$5.2 billion) for the UK economy and supported more than 34,000 jobs.

If the UK votes for Brexit, and if EU students are then treated the same as international students, this is likely to have a significant impact on the ability of the UK to attract students from EU countries, with a knock-on effect on the UK economy.

In a recent article, the head of University College London, which has 4,500 EU students – the most in the UK – estimated the potential loss at tens of millions of pounds in fees from those no longer able to afford study in Britain.

The same article reports current EU students saying they would not have come to the UK without access to the favourable EU terms. Others feared that additional resulting bureaucracy would be a deterrent to studying in the UK.

If students chose to go elsewhere, plenty of countries now offer programmes in English, so it would not automatically mean a student windfall for Australia, Canada, the United States and other Anglophone countries.

Although the UK’s current market share of international students is 10.3%, second after the US and ahead of Australia, France and Germany, its growth is stagnating. Not only will other Anglophone countries benefit, but so will continental Europe, certainly those countries which offer many programmes in English, such as the Netherlands and Scandinavia.

In fact, according to a recent report, Germany is expected to surpass the UK in international student numbers in the years to come, Brexit or not.

In the opposite direction, British students seeking English-medium degree programmes in countries like the Netherlands to save on tuition fees and living costs, would no longer benefit from lower EU student fees. Their numbers are small compared to the potential loss of EU-students going to the UK, but have been rising as UK fees have increased.

Quality of education

The arguments are not purely economic, however. The UK sees substantial benefits from its membership of the EU, which have an impact on quality. Any reduction in perceived quality might deter not only EU but also other international students, and could have a significant impact on the reputation of UK universities:
  • • Large numbers of staff from other EU countries work in UK universities under the freedom of movement rules, helping to enrich teaching, research and the student experience. Any change in visa arrangements might deter EU academics from seeking to work in the UK.

  • • Freedom of movement rules also simplify the study abroad process for the UK and other EU students alike, with over 200,000 UK students having experienced life-enhancing study elsewhere in Europe through the Erasmus programme since 1987 – now standing at around 15,500 per year. Incoming Erasmus students to the UK have increased over the past 10 years from 19,000 to 27,500 a year and similar patterns can be seen for staff mobility under Erasmus.

  • • Research grants from EU sources represented 2.6% of total income to UK universities and 16% of total research funding in 2013-14 (Higher Education Statistics Agency). This is a significant factor when the UK’s own contribution to its research budget is low compared to other national averages.

  • • EU membership and regional partnerships support the formation of global research teams which, in turn, enhance quality through leading-edge research and international publications. The UK performs above even the US in percentage terms of highly-cited scientific research articles. International collaboration is key to this, supported by EU funding, mobility and partnerships.

Perhaps the greatest danger of a UK decision to leave the EU would be the perception of it as being insular, parochial, isolated and lacking interest in the rest of the world. If, by association, universities were perceived to hold similar views, this would be in significant contrast to the international focus and objectives of universities around the world, including the UK.

Not only would fewer degree and credit-seeking EU students mean a reduction in international and intercultural exposure for UK students, but the UK’s apparent insularity might deter those looking for quality international education in an increasingly global world.

“It will most certainly stop me from engaging in any postgraduate study in the UK,” said an Italian student at one Russell Group university quoted in The Guardian. “I will not associate myself with any country in Europe that does not recognise the importance of a united continent. If the referendum fails to keep the UK in Europe, despite my love for its academic institutions, I will gladly move elsewhere.”

Membership of the EU is seen as crucial by EU students but also by many British universities, which is why more than 100 university leaders signed an open letter in favour of remaining. They argued that the UK’s position within the EU has a positive impact on universities, helping “our economy, driving growth, generating jobs and ultimately improving people’s lives”.

It is clear that Brexit could have a strong influence on the number of EU students opting for a degree or Erasmus experience in the UK, but could it also have an effect on students from other continents? That depends not only on the potential perceptions of isolation and impact on quality noted above but also whether the UK’s restrictive immigration and visa policies were lifted.

One argument of Leave campaigners is that Britain should be more open to trade with countries around the world, with less focus on the EU. Would the government then remove students from net migration figures at last and reinstate Post-Study Work Visas?

Aisling Tiernan in The World View in Inside Higher Ed, refers to recent reports from the Chartered Association of Business Schools (2016) and London First and PwC (2015) which show that the removal of post-study visas has discouraged international students from choosing to study in the UK.

She states: “If international students, whether from the EU or outside the EU, are truly valued for their contribution to the United Kingdom, then perhaps it is time to start demonstrating a serious commitment to these students by responding to the many calls to remove international students from the net migration figure, and finally work on cohesive higher education policies that complement rather than counter the aims of creating a welcoming environment for international students.”

A Brexit, though, would most likely lead to more instead of fewer barriers to immigration, with EU as well as international students being caught up in the trend. The resulting reduction in students from other countries, along with less mobility of academic staff and restrictions on Erasmus study abroad opportunities, would contribute further to the UK’s increasing isolation and restrict global perspectives for its students – depressing thoughts indeed.

Elspeth Jones is emerita professor of the internationalisation of higher education at Leeds Beckett University, UK, and honorary visiting fellow, Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milan, Italy. Email: Hans de Wit is director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, USA. Email: