The UK’s exit from the EU will require us to remodel how we will relate to our near neighbours in education and a range of other areas. Many of these issues are highlighted in the HE sector’s input into the Brexit process and contained in the government’s White Paper on the UK’s new relationship with the EU27 that was published this month. Others are not – and now need to be addressed in negotiations. Foremost among these issues is how we deal with university fees for students from the EU27 and the European Economic Area.
This is an issue that should be taken out of the orbit of Westminster’s bitter Brexit politics. We should rely instead on the experience of nations in other parts of the world, such as Australia and New Zealand and the Scandinavian nations. These regional neighbours have reciprocal arrangements on fees that are longstanding and successful. The arrangements are not tied to political union or supranational institutions – they are just seen as a common-sense arrangement reflecting historic links and geographical proximity.
More than 10,000 New Zealanders study across the Tasman Sea at Australian universities, paying the same tuition fees as Australian nationals without the need for a student visa. The same is true of Australian citizens, who move the opposite way to study. There is a strong tradition of the UK, Australian and New Zealand universities learning from each other and this is an area where that tradition could continue.
Retaining the positive impact of European students
Students from other nations are vital to any country’s university sector. They diversify communities and facilitate and enrich educational perspectives and cultural development. They also often help sustain courses that might otherwise struggle based on domestic recruitment alone. In so doing, they improve access to opportunities for home students in all parts of the country and potentially support the regions in meeting skills shortages in key sectors.
This issue is important because as things stand in 2020, new students from Europe will automatically revert to full international fee status. Depending on the nature of any new student mobility arrangement agreed with the EU27, similar language assessments and form filling as those demanded of non-EU students may apply to European applicants. This runs the risk of introducing major disincentives against student mobility: financial barriers and bureaucratic hurdles.
That could lead to many EU students, who have grown up accustomed to being able to access study in other European countries, turning away from the UK in favour of universities in countries closer to home, many of which deliver courses in English. The growing numbers of UK students who wish to stay overseas may also find their opportunities restricted or harder to achieve.
The predicable upshot of this scenario will be a sharp fall, possibly a precipitous drop, in the number of European students coming to the UK in the 2020s, with some estimates predicting a drop as high as 47 per cent. The scale of this impact should not be underestimated: more than 130,000 European students attend UK universities each year. And in addition to the estimated £5.1 billion they generate for the economy, 35,000 jobs are sustained by their presence here.
UK universities face a massive challenge already to retain our status as one of the most popular destination for students from outside the UK. Needlessly eschewing the chance to retain strong student flows with Europe seems like a self-inflicted blow.
Reciprocal arrangements the way forward
The government’s recent Brexit White Paper hinted at an encouraging direction of travel: it committed to a student mobility scheme and maintaining Britain’s status in the Erasmus+ programme. Although the detail is thin, the principle of pan-European arrangements for students involving the UK is acknowledged. The UK should take a further step in line with this principle.
It makes sense to agree with European nations, either through the EU or involving all European Bologna signatories, a “European Student Status” by formal international agreement, as part of the Brexit negotiations or separately during the implementation period.
The UK could also decide to extend some fee loan support to students from European nations generally or selectively, based on the reciprocal benefits this could bring, including taxpayer value for money.
Look to success elsewhere
The arrangements between Australia and New Zealand is proof that a mutually beneficial reciprocal agreement on student fees is achievable and worth aspiring to.
Ministers have been very clear that even after Brexit, the UK and the EU will continue to have a special and close relationship. What better way to prove it than with a show of good faith that proposing reciprocal arrangements to students would be?
David Phoenix is chair of MillionPlus, the association for modern universities, and vice-chancellor of London South Bank University.