European mobility rebounds post-COVID, not for UK students

Student mobility across Europe has rebounded after COVID, but Brexit has significantly reduced opportunities for students from the United Kingdom, the QS Higher Education Summit: Europe 2023 in Dublin, Ireland, was told this week.

“Today, almost 40% of school leavers globally enter university, with 6.4 million students choosing to study abroad, and hundreds of thousands more choosing to study with foreign universities based in their own countries,” said Professor Nigel Healey, vice president for global and community engagement at the University of Limerick in Ireland and chair of the QS Global Advisory Committee.

A number of contributors lamented the vote for Brexit in the UK, which Healey described as one of the worst peacetime failures of public policy-making.

“Brexit severed the UK’s ties with European partner universities by excluding them from the Erasmus+ mobility programme (worth €26 billion [US$28 billion] over the period 2021-27) and, at least for now, the huge Horizon Europe research programme (worth €96 billion over the same 2021-27 period),” he said.

He added: “For Irish universities pre-Brexit, our teaching and research were closely integrated with the UK sector.

“It is true that Ireland has benefited in some ways from the UK’s departure. As the only English-speaking country in the EU, with very strong research-intensive universities, Irish universities have been seen as the default replacements for EU networks losing UK partners.

“But the close relationship between Irish and UK universities has been adversely impacted by Brexit and there is much work to do to find new ways of working together,” he added.

Brexit ‘hugely damaging’

Beverley Orr-Ewing, director of the Centre for Study Abroad at the University of Bristol in England, said she would love to see more representation from Europe in her university. Brexit has been hugely damaging to its European Study Abroad programme.

“In Bristol we have a large School of Modern Languages. We have to have links in Europe – they are incredibly important to us,” she said, and went on to outline some of the ways in which the university is trying to deepen links not just in Europe but in the United States and elsewhere.

Jacqui Jenkins, global lead for international student mobility and marketing at the British Council, said the UK is still talking about increasing the number of overseas students but not necessarily about increasing its market share because of issues such as high accommodation costs.

Professor Margaret Topping, pro-vice-chancellor for global engagement at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland, said her university is in a transitional phase as it has a certain amount of Erasmus funding left which is dedicated towards many of the existing partnerships. But that will come to an end next year.

The UK’s new Turing global programme to study and work abroad has many positives as funding is open to schools and further education as well as to higher education, she added.

“Also positive is that it’s not the traditional semester abroad. The minimum requirement is a month and, for widening participation reasons, that’s very positive,” she said, adding that there are negatives as well.

“There isn’t that wrap-around for curriculum development, for genuine partnership. It is simply a pot of money to support students to spend time abroad.”

Turing scheme conceptualisation ‘flawed’

Topping said the key flaw in the conceptualisation of Turing is that “it is for outward student mobility only. It’s not for inward student mobility”, so there isn’t a strong basis for partnership building.

She said there is a very positive picture within Ireland of North-South collaboration to try to mitigate the effects of Brexit on Northern Ireland students.

The Republic of Ireland government has given Northern universities the opportunity to register their students in universities south of the border to allow them to be Erasmus students.

“Now that has been practically more challenging than it sounded in theory, and we’re still trying to work through how we might want to do that.”

Rebounding mobility seen as a threat

Dr Janet Ilieva, founder and director at Education Insight, said that the rebound of international student mobility is cheered by educators and frowned upon by politicians. The latter perceives them as a threat to the capacity of their domestic higher education system and worries that marginalised students may be displaced by their international counterparts.

“An argument that international students do not displace home students has to be made loud and clear, and evidenced with data. Many postgraduate courses, particularly in science, technology, engineering and maths [STEM], may become unviable if the number of international students is limited,” Ilieva warned.

Most Europeans study abroad in Europe

Most of the international mobility of European students is to another European country – more than 80% of European students study in another European country, she noted, stating that “Brexit has significantly impacted mobility flows and resulted in significantly reduced diversity in the UK and reduced opportunities for students”.

Professor Chiara Finocchietti, director of CIMEA-NARIC Italia and an expert in the evaluation of qualifications, said that many students choose to move abroad to study, but many do so not out of choice. ‘Forced’ mobility due to war, crises, etc, is part of the mobility landscape.

“The question arises about how to support access of refugees to higher education. We know that only 6% of refugees worldwide enrol in higher education. There is still a lot of work to do.”

Her comments prompted discussions about the need for more scholarships and support for overseas students who are not from fee-paying backgrounds.

India pleads for more variety

The Indian Ambassador to Ireland Akhilesh Mishra said that his country sends around 720,000 students abroad each year for higher education. But overseas universities are all focusing on metropolitan areas for recruitment. They need broader engagement with India outside of a few big cities.

They should also go beyond talking about conventional courses as there are a lot of extremely important, valuable courses which can be very enriching for both countries. One major area is creative courses such as film, design, fashion and the whole entertainment-related industry.

His experience is that student recruitment is based on personal contact, is largely individual driven and individual-centric. “So, my request is that if you’re looking for a longer term vision, then please focus on institution-centred engagement. There has to be institutional ownership on both sides. So, what will be important is for both universities, both sides, to identify niche areas which are of interest to them both” he added.