Indications of a worrying drop in EU recruitment

There has been much discussion in the sector about how Brexit has already and will have an impact on the recruitment of EU students to UK higher education institutions. However, to date, there has been little data available on recruitment trends since the vote to leave in June 2016.

At the Russell Group, we sought to get an early picture of these trends – ahead of the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data release – by collecting data directly from our institutions. In December 2018, 23 Russell Group universities provided a snapshot of their data on the number of EU-domiciled students who had enrolled on courses this academic year (2018-19) compared to the same time last year.

What the data shows

On average, this data shows a 3% decrease in enrolment, which is the first time a decrease in the overall number of EU students starting courses at Russell Group universities has been reported since 2012-13, when tuition fees increased. And while it’s important to note that this is aggregate data and growth will vary between institution and level of study, it indicates a worrying downturn in appetite from the EU to study in the UK – and will be a concern for the sector.

When we performed this data collection exercise across Russell Group universities last year, we saw marginal growth of 1% in EU enrolment between 2016-17 and 2017-18. Before that, HESA data shows that growth in the number of first year EU students at Russell Group universities grew by 5%, 4%, 4% and 7% in each consecutive year between 2012-13 and 2016-17 (latest available data).

For us, what was striking about the data on enrolments this year was the decrease seen at postgraduate level: while there was a marginal increase of 1% at the undergraduate level, there was a 5% drop in the number of EU postgraduate taught students and a 9% decrease in the number of EU postgraduate research students.

The 9% decline in postgraduate research students enrolling at Russell Group universities this year follows a 9% drop reported by our universities in 2017-18. This means there has been a significant decrease in EU postgraduate research students enrolling on courses at Russell Group universities since the referendum.

Cause for concern

This worrying trend in talented EU postgraduate students choosing to start their research careers elsewhere should be a concern for this Government, which is looking to boost the UK’s position as a world-class centre for research – and deliver an ambitious industrial strategy.

Taken together, our data suggests that the uncertainty over our future relationship with Europe is starting to make the UK significantly less attractive to EU students. It will not be a surprise to the sector that uncertainty has already had an impact on decision making among EU students – details of the Settlement Scheme were only published in June 2018, months after the application deadlines for most courses starting in 2018-19. And there’s still no guarantee that those enrolling in 2019-20 will be eligible to register under this scheme in a “no-deal” scenario. Further uncertainty looms for subsequent cohorts, with the UK Government to date failing to clarify the fee status and loan book access for those looking to apply for courses that start in 2020-21, many of whom we know are researching their options now.

The future funding environment for research will also be on the minds of prospective students – in particular those looking to undertake a PhD in the UK, where future access to prestigious EU grants such as MSCA and ERC will be important to help grow their careers.

A no-deal scenario is likely to increase the level of uncertainty felt by students across Europe and further undermine the UK’s appeal as a study destination. This is one of the many reasons why the Russell Group has joined with Universities UK, Guild HE, Million Plus and University Alliance in writing to politicians and government to warn of the risks for research, staff and students if the UK leaves the EU without a deal.

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