Much of the debate around the EU referendum and higher education has been focused on research. This is understandable given the substantial percentage of UK research funding derived from EU sources – the UK benefits directly from £1.2 billion annually in European research funding. However, given the significant and growing number of EU learners that study in the UK, we need to consider the impact of a Brexit on admissions to HE.
UCAS End of Cycle Report 2015 revealed there were 29,300 accepted applicants from the EU; an increase of 11% from the 2014 cycle. Of the countries with a proportional increase of more than the 11% average, Romania (+34 per cent, 2,450 acceptances), Italy (+26%, 2,630 acceptances), Poland (+25%, 1,660 acceptances), Spain (+16%, 1,850 acceptances) and France (+16%, 3,060 acceptances) all had more than 1,000 acceptances in 2015. Croatia, the newest member of the EU, saw an 87% increase in the number of accepted applicants (however, the numbers are relatively small in comparison to other countries).
Graph 1: Changes in acceptances for 2015, relative to 2014 by selected European country
EU students make up 5.5% of the total accepted application population to full-time courses. However, there is significant variance by institution, with 25% of the annual intake at some institutions coming from the EU, bringing in an estimated £8M of tuition fee income per year.
The EU referendum and possible withdrawal from the EU has the potential to impact significantly on EU student recruitment. Although the implications of a Brexit remain unclear, it is not difficult to imagine the process for recruiting EU learners becoming more complex and closer to that used to recruit international students, potentially with the introduction of some sort of visa for entry. This could lead to increased costs to recruit these students.
The fee status and number control arrangements (where they exist) relating to EU domiciled learners may also change. This provides both challenges and opportunities for the sector. For example, EU students in Scotland are currently entitled to free tuition and recruitment is covered by student number controls. If they were to no longer be classified as Home students, EU students would have to pay tuition fees and Scottish institutions could recruit freely (subject to their own capacity and self-imposed restrictions). Similar situations could arise in Wales and Northern Ireland, where student support is also available to EU learners.
Changes to fee status, increases in tuition fees and removal of student support would probably impact on the attractiveness of UK HE to EU students.
Regardless of the outcome of the EU referendum, uncertainty regarding the UK’s future status may be causing anxiety amongst today’s students who may be unsure if their status will change mid-course, as well as casting doubts on the ‘openness’ of UK HE to European learners.
Inward migration is not the only consideration. If the UK were to leave the EU, outward mobility programmes, such as Erasmus or international placements, would become harder to operate, potentially leading to a reduction in the number of UK students choosing to go abroad.
Graph 2: Applicants at the 15 January deadline by domicile (2016 cycle)
The 2016 admissions cycle has seen continued growth in demand from EU students. UCAS’ January deadline figures showed just a 0.2% increase in the total number applying via UCAS. This increase has been driven by a 6% increase in EU applicants (Graph 2). Given that the UK is currently experiencing a decline in the number of 18-year-olds in the population and competition for these students is intensifying, some institutions will no doubt continue to rely upon EU and international recruitment in the future.
With the referendum in June, all eyes will be on the strength of the conversion of applications from EU students later on in the summer, and the pattern of applications from EU countries next year.