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Brexit will hit demand for UK HE differently across the globe

Global course search data can give us a clue as to where post-Brexit demand for UK universities may be declining, or perhaps even increasing. Aaron Porter has crunched the numbers.
This article is more than 7 years old

Aaron Porter is Director of Partnerships at Wonkhe

With non-EU student recruitment starting to slow, and competition for UK students increasingly fierce, recruitment from the European Union provided a much-needed relief in the last academic year. Figures from the UCAS 2015 end of cycle showed that EU recruitment increased by 8.3%, compared to rises of just 2.4% for UK domiciled and 1.6% non-EU students.

Since June 24th, university management teams, governing bodies, and recruitment teams have been frantically trying to model the possible implications that Brexit may have on recruitment – both for EU and non-EU students. How will EU student demand fare when it transitions from a £9000 loan to a much higher upfront payment?

Logic, and pure economics would suggest it should take a hit. But if the sector has learnt any lesson over the last decade, students’ decisions in a new fee regime don’t always adhere to logic and predicted economic rationality. The decision about what and where to study is a complex one, and it is so much more than an economic calculation. EU students will be no different.

The available information for modelling the likely changes to EU and non-EU student recruitment are sketchy and unreliable. Clearly universities will be closely monitoring any fluctuations in applications and enquiries as a proxy to predict likely enrolments, but if you are down on applications in a cycle, it’s already too late. Yet emerging data from applicants’ enquiries and research into available courses might give us a much earlier indication as to what might happen to future applications and enrolments.

Is interest in UK HE declining post-referendum?

I have begun to delve into the available analytics and data from Hotcourses global websites, one of the most widely used search tools for university courses. Able to access visits from over 66 million prospective students who are searching for courses at universities across the globe, the data paints a rich and authoritative picture of trends and patterns in the research activity of prospective students. It gives an indication of the countries where demand is proving resilient, the subjects which are popular, and performance relative to other universities. Crucially, the data allows them to get an early indication of what might happen to student numbers before applications and enrolment.

Given the seismic impact which many are predicting that Brexit will have on the sector, I wanted to offer an early indication on the trends we are seeing to demand from key EU countries to UK universities, before many applications have even been lodged.

Global Searches for the UK, USA, Australia & New Zealand – 2014/15 vs 2015/16

1 November 2014 –
30 October 2015
1 November –
30 October 2016
% Change
New Zealand6.1%7.0%+0.9%

Global Searches for the UK, USA, Australia and New Zealand (post/pre Referendum)

CountryPre Vote
February 18 – June 23 2016
(18 weeks)
Post Vote
June 24 – October 21 2016
(18 weeks)
% Change
New Zealand6.7%7.5%+0.8%

We can see from the data above that when comparing global student course searches between 2014/15 and 2015/16, the UK has had a torrid time falling an alarming 3.6% from 33.2% to 29.6%. However when comparing the period before and after the referendum, it actually appears that the UK is starting to turnaround the decline.

It is hard to be precise as to what could be behind this rise since the referendum, but I would suggest three possible factors: first, a potential rush for students to apply before it becomes harder to enter or a new fee regime comes into force; second, that the UK has been in the news may help to stimulate greater searches; and third, the weakening of the pound is making it more attractive in the short term.

How is interest changing in different EU countries?

When breaking down some key EU countries we see more interesting patterns emerge. Germany is a particularly interesting example, given it is the top sender of EU students to Britain.

Prospective searches for the UK, USA, Australia and New Zealand from Germany

Nov 14 –
Oct 15
Nov 15 –
Oct 16
 Pre Vote
Feb 18 –
June 23
Post Vote
June 24 –
Oct 21
% Change
New Zealand2.8%7.8%+5.0%8.0%7.5%-0.5%

Year on year there has been an alarming drop in interest from Germany in the United Kingdom (50.1% down to 40.3%), although the recent weeks have been more positive with early signs of a return to growth or at least a temporary improvement since the referendum.

Other countries in the EU show a mixed pattern of changing interest in UK higher education since the vote.

% interest in the UK (in a basket against the USA, Australia and New Zealand) – Pre vs Post Referendum

Country applying fromPre Vote
Feb 18 –
June 23
Post Vote
June 24 –
Oct 21
% Change
Republic of Ireland57.2%63.7%+6.5%
GLOBAL AGGREGATE28.8%29.5%+0.7%

The table above is interesting for a number of reasons, but two points particularly jump out:

  • At least in the early weeks, students from different EU countries appear to be reacting differently to the vote. Some countries have actually seen an increase in interest (Germany, Republic of Ireland) whereas others more negatively.
  • Despite predictions to the contrary, global searches to the UK has actually increased (from 28.8% of traffic to 29.5%), against a wider trend where the UK had actually been losing market share.

Bluntly, the landscape ahead for European Union recruitment is likely to be a rocky one. But the ability to use course search data to get an early indication of demand, before applications come in (or don’t) will clearly be helpful.

On 30th November, the Hotcourses Group is hosting an International Insights Day to explore the future landscape for international recruitment, including a further analysis of the potential Brexit effect. For further details on the conference and to book a place, click here.

3 responses to “Brexit will hit demand for UK HE differently across the globe

  1. Interesting analysis but we should not assume that EU students will be classed as international students – all options still on the table.

    1. The trouble is that EU students effectively get a much better deal than UK students. I have never managed to find data on how the Student Loan Company RAB rate varies by country of origin, but I would very much expect that it is substantially higher for non-UK students – who may not hit the repayment threshold as early (on average) in their career and who may live in countries from which the SLC finds it challenging to recover debts.

      At the moment we have to do this; once we are outside the EU it would be surprising if this was still the case.

  2. “But the ability to use course search data to get an early indication of demand, before applications come in (or don’t) will clearly be helpful.”

    Clearly this is doubtful, prospective students might be looking at what they will miss.

    Why a foreign would want to study in a country that resent foreigners so overtly is quite hard to fathom.

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