Leader: Beware of losing EU students

August 3, 2001

The number of undergraduates coming to the United Kingdom from other European countries has fallen by nearly a quarter since 1997. Cost will be one reason. The fall coincides with the introduction of upfront tuition fees. Only Scotland, which has done away with them, has seen an increase in students from Europe, while the number of Irish applicants has almost halved since fees were abolished in Ireland but imposed in the UK.

High living costs, thanks to the strong pound, do not help, especially in London. But that is not all. The market advantage of the English language is being eroded. American degrees enjoy arguably higher prestige; Australia offers sunny winters; and more courses are being taught in English in other European countries, in both public and private institutions.

Furthermore, higher education in Europe is beginning to offer competition in a way it has not for decades. The Bologna reform with its two-tier system of three-year first degree plus two years to masters threatens to make the British one-year masters on top of a three-year bachelors degree look inadequate.

Institutions may also have become less eager to recruit European Union students. Government policy since 1997 has altered recruitment incentives. While EU students bring no extra funding and their fees can sometimes be hard to collect, there is extra money and political kudos, as demonstrated by Ian Gibson (page 16), in attracting UK students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The universities that European students are likely to choose are those most embarrassed by their narrow social mix and most anxious to widen their intake. Marginal British students may be displacing EU students.

It should not be a zero sum game. EU students add to the intellectual life of British universities. They are often among the highest fliers. As undergraduates they bring a breadth and depth of knowledge gained in their secondary education that UK students seldom match. They already speak more than one language, their maths is better and they are by definition adventurous. As postgraduates, they tend to be older and less narrowly specialised. This is an advantage given developments at the interface between disciplines.

There has been widespread complacency about the quality of British higher education. The net inflow of students was seen as evidence of the UK's attractiveness. The latest figures are a warning that things may be changing.

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