International student numbers: a cause for concern?
(Last updated: 13 May 2021)
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Ever since the vote to leave the European Union in June last year, it’s fair to say universities have been in a state of more or less permanent panic. Brexit stands to impact just about every aspect of UK universities’ operations, potentially closing off a major research funding stream and making collaborative research ventures with our nearest international partners far more challenging than previously. But perhaps above all else, there’s concern that Brexit may impact on the number of international students who apply to attend our universities.
Depending on who you ask, the most recent figures on international student admissions either confirm Remainers’ worst fears or affirm Brexiters in their convictions that the UK’s international reputation won’t suffer as a result of exiting the European Union, and may even be enhanced by it. So the Daily Mail, for example, is reporting that the latest figures "confound fears immigration policies would put potential graduates off", while the Daily Telegraph’s take on the same story is that "Universities blame Brexit for fall in foreign students."
How can the numbers differ so greatly?
The trends in international student recruitment are all over the place at the moment, which allows for a variety of interpretations. EU student numbers are down significantly in the past year, and it’s almost certain that the reason for that is Brexit. With ongoing uncertainty both over the future of free movement between the EU and UK after March 2019 and over the long-term status of EU citizens currently in the EU, it’s reasonable to assume that a large number of EU students who might previously have considered studying in the UK are now choosing to pursue their studies elsewhere in Europe, where their status is guaranteed.
To complicate the picture still further, there are also a number of more localised trends in international student recruitment that are causing concern for some, and which are more difficult to explain. For example, the number of applicants from Asia to study in Wales is down significantly. Even if they don’t have much impact on international recruitment numbers, such localised trends can be very concerning for the universities involved.
Why is Brexit deterring EU students but not international applicants from outside the EU?
Quite simply, because their expectations are – or have historically been – very different. There has been a gradual tightening of immigration restrictions around non-EU international students in the last few years, with schemes that permitted work for a limited period after graduation significantly reduced. But this has happened over a number of years and there has never been an expectation that overseas students can simply remain in the UK indefinitely without meeting further immigration requirements. Many UK universities are highly prestigious, and the fall in the Pound since June last year has actually made studying and living in the UK a more appealing economic prospect for overseas students.
For EU students, meanwhile, the UK has until very recently been a place to which they could come and go freely. They could come initially to study, but if they enjoyed the culture, found a good job, or met someone with whom they wanted to start a family, their existing EU citizenship allowed them to settle here without any further paperwork or requirements to meet. Plus, of course, they were also entitled to pay the same fees as UK students which, while among the most expensive in Europe, are still significantly cheaper than the fees paid by non-EU students in the UK, or the fees EU students would have to fork out to study elsewhere in the Anglosphere.
Are these trends likely to continue in the longer term?
It’s probably reasonable to expect EU student numbers to continue to fall in the medium term as the UK departs the European Union/ But it’s uncertain whether the upward trend in non-EU international students will also continue. At the moment, the high prestige of British universities remains a big draw, but that could be at risk long-term if the research and/or financial clout of British universities diminishes. And this, of course, could well depend on how Brexit plays out.