On 1 January 2021, the UK’s relationship with Europe will, one way or another, change forever as the transition period of leaving the EU comes to an end.
The UK’s universities and colleges have already been experiencing ongoing shifts in the relationships they have with their students in the four years since the referendum – though these changes are now happening in earnest as EU applicants consider their options in the 2021 undergraduate admissions cycle.
EU students make almost eight per cent of all UCAS applications each year and there was a period of sustained growth in the number of applicants in the middle of the last decade, before fluctuations in the years following the referendum.
Broadly speaking around 70 per cent of EU applicants indicated they would be using the tuition fee loan previously available to them on their application. However, that is not uniform across all countries. Applicants from several important European recruitment markets such as France, Germany, Italy and Spain are more likely to fund their studies through private finance than the entire EU group.
While increases in tuition fees, no automatic right to student loans and the introduction of visas could immediately conjure up forecasts of a gloomy outlook for providers in the coming years, analysis shows that there is still sizeable demand and desire from students on the continent to come to the UK. Universities, and the wider sector, may need to consider repositioning in the new world we find ourselves in though.
More than 5,000 EU applicants have already applied this year for some of the most competitive undergraduate courses by UCAS’ 15 October deadline, including 1,400 for medicine.
These numbers are lower than last year (down 19 per cent overall), though there some countries bucking the trend, and remaining constant to 2020 – most notably Ireland (up 30 per cent, to 740 October deadline applicants), where the right to study and access to benefits and services will be retained on a reciprocal basis under the Common Travel Area arrangement.
Spain (490 applicants this year) and Cyprus (200 applicants), two key countries that are consistently in the EU top ten based on UCAS applications, are also seeing like-for-like numbers compared with last year.
Demand is still there
Going beyond application statistics and drilling into sentiment with the insight gleaned from our surveys for international advisers and the thousands of students they support each year, gets a truer sense of how they are feeling and their motivations.
Advisers, typically teachers and counsellors, confirm that demand is still there. In fact, they have more students asking for support this year for an international application than in the 2020 cycle, a clear indication that students are still considering moving abroad for their degree, despite the ongoing impact of Covid-19.
There is still a buoyant market for international recruitment but it may be one that our universities may need to re-establish themselves in. Advisers said there was a decrease in prospective students seeking advice on applying to the UK specifically, a fall that is broadly in line with the drop in applications as of the recent October deadline.
Though some students are currently put off the UK – both for fee and Covid reasons – many have not written off applying to the UK entirely. In our qualitative work, advisers report that they are regularly asked for information about scholarships and bursaries to support applicants attending a university in the UK, demonstrating a desire to overcome the potential financial barriers that might exist.
The drop in EU applicants seen to date isn’t as high as might have been anticipated. When the current cohort was surveyed in the last academic year, over half said they probably wouldn’t apply to the UK if increased tuition fees were introduced (as is now the case) – considerably less than the 19 per cent decline we saw in October.
Although there are clear differences, it would be prudent to remember that the application rate of UK 18 year olds (the proportion of all young people applying through UCAS) has risen each year since 2012.
It is also worth bearing in mind that many international applicants keep their options open by applying to universities and colleges in multiple countries, including their home country. This could conceivably increase this year as the world emerges from the impact of the pandemic. Some 62 per cent of 2021 EU applicants have so far said they are applying to a country other than the UK, up from around 50 per cent at the same point last year, and more than eight in ten advisers report regularly supporting students to make multiple applications to different countries.
Other countries are also seeing variance in interest from EU applicants. Of the international students who responded to our latest survey and who say they are applying to countries as well as the UK, the proportion choosing Germany has declined to 19 per cent from 23 per cent. This is in sharp contrast to those taking a serious interest in studying in Ireland, which has doubled, with 39 per cent of dual-application applicants now interested in studying there, compared to 18 per cent this time last year.
From our surveys, we can identify several key messages that the higher education community can promote to benefit EU, and wider international, recruitment.
Applicants are particularly looking for reassurance about what the teaching and learning experience will actually look like, and how they know they’ll be getting value for money if they’ll be learning online and possibly from their home country.
There is also the natural worry of being away from home during a pandemic – messaging about accommodation logistics and the wellbeing and pastoral support on offer to those unable to visit family during their studies should be as clear as possible to enable applicants to make informed choices.
Open days have moved online en masse and have unlocked the possibility of new markets for recruitment. As one adviser puts it: “One positive from the pandemic is that open days are now accessible to my students who normally would not be able to engage in these events. I feel like the world has opened up to them with so many virtual events to choose from around the globe.”
However, an abundance of opportunities can easily create a choice paradox. Students are saying they need a (short, snappy) reason to attend one open day over another. As one respondent said: “Both my students and I are being bombarded with offers of Zoom this or webinar that. In a very stressful year, I think that this turns many of them off.”
Also, never underestimate the importance of being clear with details and eligibility of scholarships and bursaries – a constant in survey responses for years.
The geopolitics of our world are in the midst of their most substantial changes in living memory, and old ways of thinking about the UK’s place in the European and global higher education maps have a severely limited lifespan.
Interest in studying in the UK is still there, but new factors are contributing to an ever more competitive global marketplace. The UK needs to reset, reconnect and reassert its positioning to future students wanting to be part of our higher education offer, as the potential for a brighter future is on the horizon.
This article is published in association with UCAS.