56% plunge in EU students accepted at British universities

University chiefs were prepared for the worst when applications from European Union students to study on undergraduate courses in the United Kingdom fell by 43% by the time of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) deadline of 30 June.

But the 56% drop in the number of EU applicants placed on higher education courses by 10 August is still a shock to the system, with accepted EU applicants falling from 22,430 at the same period last year to just 9,820 this year.

A sharp decline in interest in studying at British universities among students from the 27 European Union countries was expected as this is the first year that EU students can no longer get loans and grants from the UK Student Loans Company as a result of the Brexit deal and the end of the transition period for the UK’s departure from the European bloc.

EU students must now find the £9,000 (US$12,300) or more for UK university tuition fees and pay up front, and this has devasted recruitment from the less wealthy EU member states.

East European recruitment falls off the cliff

David Pilsbury, deputy vice-chancellor (international) at Coventry University for the last 13 years, told University World News: “While recruitment from Germany has held up well, numbers from Hungary and Romania have fallen off the cliff and Coventry estimates it will lose 80% of its European recruitment because most of its EU students come from Eastern Europe.

“Without access to loans and support from the UK’s Student Loans Company, they just can’t afford to come to the UK to study anymore.”

Dr Janet Ilieva, a data specialist and director of UK-based research consultancy Education Insight, said UCAS was publishing a daily Clearing analysis of placed applicants, including those from the EU and overseas, from 10 to 27 August. The Clearing process enables universities and colleges to fill student places they still have on courses.

The 56% dip in EU recruitment was revealed in the first statistical release from UCAS, which coincided with the results day of the Joint Council for Qualifications and the start of Clearing on 10 August 2021.

Ilieva told University World News: “The dip in placed students from the EU’s 27 countries is more dramatic than many feared.”

But she believes figures for the 30 June deadline for applications may give a better indication of demand from EU students. These showed interest in study in the UK falling by 43% among EU students, from 49,650 to 28,400.

“This drop in applicants by the 30 June UCAS deadline was most pronounced for the price-sensitive countries in Central and Eastern Europe like Bulgaria, where there was a 72% decline and 1,350 fewer applicants in 2021 compared to the same time last year; Poland, where there was a 73% decline and 2,400 fewer applicants; and Romania, with a drop of 65% or 1,980 applicants.”

Warning back in February

Ilieva said the decline in EU students so far placed was in line with estimates made by London Economics for the UK’s Department for Education in a report published in February 2021, titled EU Exit: Estimating the impact on UK higher education.

This anticipated that the effect of policy changes would be to reduce first-year EU student enrolments in UK higher education institutions by approximately 35,540 or 57%.

Ilieva told University World News: “Drawing on the analysis from London Economics, the undergraduate declines will persist over time. They are impacted by the higher tuition fee levels, particularly pronounced among students from Central and Eastern Europe.

“This means that at the undergraduate level, demand will not rebound like it did in response to trebled tuition fees for home students in 2012.”

Campuses will be less cosmopolitan

Ilieva said withdrawing loans and grants from EU students wanting to study in the UK, coupled with the UK's decision not to continue participating in the Erasmus+ academic exchange programme, will have a huge impact.

“It will make British campuses less diverse and less cosmopolitan and amplify the loss of full-time EU students on campus.

“Leaving Erasmus will mean up to 30,000 fewer visiting and exchange students from the EU. This will have a huge impact on the diversity of university campuses and the academic and cultural experiences of their students.”

Asian recruitment on the up

It is not all doom and gloom on the undergraduate recruitment front, as UK home student numbers are surging following better than average A-level grades, which this year were based on teacher submissions after exams were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as University World News reported last week.

Recruitment is also up for non-EU international students, rising by 9%, from 33,630 to 34,310 by 10 August 2021, compared with the same period last year.

The number of placed applicants from China on UK undergraduate courses rose from 8,570 last year to 9,740 using the 10 August comparative data from UCAS, and now almost matches the total for EU students recruited this year. This followed a rise in applications from China, from 24,430 in 2020 to 28,490 by the 30 June UCAS deadline.

Students already recruited from India rose from 2,680 in 2020 to 3,200, according to the 10 August 2021 UCAS figures. Applications from India rose from 7,640 to 9,930 by the UCAS 30 June deadline.

Ilieva pointed out that China and India had significantly larger postgraduate student populations studying in the UK and these students are not covered in the UCAS figures, which look at trends in undergraduate recruitment.

UK undergraduate recruitment is also up significantly this year from Malaysia, the United States and Nigeria, according to the UCAS daily updates.

This is the first year that the number of applicants from international students outside the EU has surpassed the 100,000 mark, with 102,000 applying by 30 June 2021. The number of UK applicants rose from 514,020 to 551,620.

Only applicants from the EU fell, as mentioned, from 49,650 to 28,400, which highlights the need for UK universities to rethink their strategic approach to European engagement if the damage to recruitment from the UK's nearest neighbours is to be reversed.

Note: I will be exploring the options open, including joint degrees from UK and EU universities and UK universities opening campuses on the European continent, with higher education experts in another article.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in UK and European higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.