UK faces sharp fall in EU students due to uncertainty

United Kingdom universities are risking a sharp fall in European Union student numbers unless reassurances are made, the head of Universities UK, the vice-chancellors’ body, said on Wednesday.

Dame Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK or UUK, and vice-chancellor of the University of Kent, told the UUK annual conference in Nottingham last Wednesday that urgent reassurance is necessary to “prevent a likely sudden decline in EU student applications across the UK”.

More than 125,000 EU students are currently studying at UK universities, making up 5% of the entire student population.

Following the EU referendum result in June, there were statements from across all UK nations confirming that current EU students and those starting courses this autumn (2016–17) will be eligible to receive loans and grants to fund their studies for the duration of their courses.

There has, however, been no clarification on EU students applying to study from next year (2017-18). The situation has now become urgent as the UCAS – Universities and Colleges Admissions Service – process for accepting applications for 2017 opened on 6 September.

Dame Julia said: "Put simply, universities are currently unable to answer two crucial questions that are being frequently asked by prospective EU students considering whether to apply to start courses in the UK in autumn 2017.

“What fees will you charge for any years of my course which are post the date of exit? Will I be able to access any financial support?

"This issue is urgent.”

She said this is because EU students are almost twice as likely as UK students to apply very early for those courses with October deadlines.

“I urge government to take swift and positive action to address uncertainty, prevent a likely sudden decline in EU student applications and provide much needed reassurance to prospective EU students and universities across the UK."

Addressing the UUK conference, Jo Johnson, the universities and science minister, acknowledged the “importance of government providing further clarity” and said he was working closely with government colleagues to find a rapid way forward to support universities’ collective interest on these matters.

Brexit poll shock

Dame Julia told the conference that the outcome of the referendum on EU membership was not the outcome that UK institutions wanted and many people felt “shock and disappointment” at the result.

After the vote the UUK board received a deluge of emails from colleagues and students cataloguing their personal fears and concerns about what the decision meant for them and their future living, working and studying in the UK.

She said: “We have accepted the result and we want to work constructively with the government to support the best possible outcome for the UK during the negotiations and beyond.

“However, our views will be centred on the understandable anxiety among the 125,000 EU students and the 43,000 EU staff in our universities. We understand that answers are unlikely to be quick or easy as there are complex political issues at play, but clarity is needed right now – for our staff as they consider whether to stay in the UK; for our current students who are anxious about what it means for their place here; and for prospective students as they consider entry in 2017.”

She said: “We need to be able to let prospective EU students know now that they will pay the same fees and have access to the same financial support arrangements for the duration of their courses.

She said the problem is not the period when the UK is still within the EU, when current rules will continue to apply, but what can be said now about courses which continue post exiting the EU.
This issue could be addressed by government through transitional legal arrangements for EU students starting courses in 2016, 2017 and 2018, she suggested.

Call for visa rule changes

In the main body of her speech, Dame Julia urged the government to take steps to ensure universities can thrive post Brexit and to create the conditions in which the university sector could contribute most fully to the UK’s economic success and global influence, both inside and outside the EU.

She called for support to enhance international research collaboration with partners in Europe and globally; the development of policies, including immigration policy reforms, to enhance the UK as an attractive destination for international students and staff; the enhancement of mobility programmes to increase global opportunities for UK students and staff; and increased public investment in research and innovation.

She said UUK would continue to make a strong case for a government-backed campaign to promote the UK’s world-class higher education sector across the globe, “accompanied by a visa regime that makes clear that international students and staff are welcome and make a highly valued contribution to the British economy and society”.

She added: “If Britain is to meet the government’s own target of increasing total education exports to £30 billion [US$40 billion] by 2020, it needs a new approach to immigration that is proportionate and welcoming to genuine international students.”

Unnecessary barriers for highly skilled international staff wanting to work in the UK should also be removed, she said.

According to a report in The Telegraph, the number of students from EU countries applying to British universities jumped by 11% – the highest number on record – before the vote as worries about the referendum led to a scramble for places. EU students have access to student loans and lower fees than other foreign students but there are fears that they could lose this advantage when Brexit actually takes place.