Analysis: Struggle to reverse student immobility

August 3, 2001

Crossing the Channel is losing its appeal for students. There has been a dramatic drop in EU nationals coming to Britain and we are losing interest in the Erasmus exchange programme. Claire Sanders and Jennie Brookman, right, look at the reasons why.

The number of European Union students applying to study as undergraduates in the United Kingdom fell by 23 per cent between 1997 and 2000 and the trend looks set to continue for 2001. Latest figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service show applications down by 13 per cent on this time last year.

Although postgraduate numbers increased between 1997 and 2000 by 25 per cent, there are concerns that these numbers too could begin to fall as UK postgraduate qualifications fall out of line with European ones.

In 1999, prime minister Tony Blair launched an initiative to increase the number of overseas students at UK universities by 50,000 by 2004-05.

The initiative is worldwide, but it is targeted at countries that would bring in high fees, mostly outside the EU.

The target, already seen as over-ambitious, will be harder to meet as EU students fall away.


The fall in applicants to UK universities from the Republic of Ireland and Greece largely accounts for the drop in undergraduate numbers. But overall applicants from other EU countries are also falling.

The Irish fall coincides with the Dublin government's decision to drop tuition fees just as they were introduced in the UK in 1997. In Greece, the government has sought to expand higher education at home, cutting down on the cost of sending students abroad.

Ireland is still the largest source of applicants from outside the UK, but applicants are down nearly 22 per cent on June 30 last year. China, which has seen an 84 per cent increase in applications to the UK, could soon top it Scotland, which does not charge upfront fees to EU students, has also been unable to reverse the fall in Irish students. The number of Irish applicants has fallen 9.5 per cent on this time last year. Scotland has, however, bucked the trend in falling applications from other EU countries, with an increase of 2 per cent (about 70 students).

Robert Munroe, higher education adviser at the British Council, said: "We would act to arrest the decline in EU undergraduate students only if UK universities themselves were worried. They have not as yet made a noise about this issue."

There is little incentive for UK universities to make much noise when EU students bring no extra money.

Essex University is, however, an exception. It takes up to 40 per cent of its students from overseas and has maintained its EU numbers because it wants an international campus.

Mike Nicholson, head of undergraduate admissions and student recruitment, said: "Overseas undergraduate students from beyond the EU pay full fees and bring the university money. Local students from disadvantaged backgrounds now bring extra money and are less expensive to attract than EU students."

EU students pay the same fees as UK students. If they come under the parental income threshold of £20,000 before tax and so do not have to pay fees themselves, the UK government pays the fees and is reimbursed by the EU.

Mr Nicholson said: "As the Irish and Greek numbers have fallen we have sought to make up our EU numbers with students from other countries. We now have more Finnish students. These study humanities. The Greeks tended to study economics and accountancy, while the Irish studied the sciences, so this has changed the composition of some of the university courses."

Alex Bols, the new general secretary of the National Union of Students in Europe, said: "One of our key aims is to promote the mobility of students to study in different European countries. The European Parliament recently set a goal of increasing student mobility within Europe from the current 3 per cent to 10 per cent by 2010. It may be that some UK universities have been targeting international students from outside the EU as they pay full-cost fees.

"We would encourage UK universities to promote mobility both from the EU to the UK and from the UK to Europe."

Oxford University, which has been able to keep the numbers of EU undergraduate students stable, said: "We have always sought to maintain our EU numbers. The recently launched Oxford bursaries scheme will be available to students on full-fee remission from the EU as of October 2002."

The London School of Economics saw its EU undergraduate numbers fall from 407 in 1999-2000 to 389 in 2000-01. A spokesperson described the drop as slight.

Between 1999-2000 and 2000-01 Middlesex University saw a drop of 11 per cent in its EU students. A spokesperson said: "One reason is that European universities have started to offer more vocational degrees, such as computing, business and art and design and so students can now choose to study these degrees at home.

"We also think that more EU students may be going to Scotland as they do not have to pay fees there."


James Groves, general secretary of the National Postgraduate Committee, warned against complacency on postgraduate numbers.

"There are definite fears that the fall in EU undergraduates coming to the UK could leech into postgraduate numbers," he said.

"Following the Bologna declaration there are moves to standardise postgraduate qualifications and Europe is moving towards a masters requiring either three years of undergraduate study and two years of postgraduate, or four plus one. The UK system of three plus one does not fit in.

"The NPC feels that not enough is being done by universities or the government to influence this debate," Mr Groves added.

Peter Milton, director of programme review at the Quality Assurance Agency, said: "This is a potential issue. The QAA has never gone down the route of defining a qualification by the time it takes to do it. We have always sought to define it by level. This is the argument that must be put forward in Europe."

Warwick University has consistently taken about 350 postgraduate students from the EU for the past few years.

A spokesman said: "What concerns students is whether they get a job at the end of the day, not European directives. What we see as a potential threat is the growing trend among European universities to offer courses in English. This could knock our competitive edge."

'It is so much more flexible here than on the Continent'

After completing her degree in art history at Warwick University, Almuvena Cros-Gutierrez went on to do her PhD there.

"I originally came to the UK from Spain because I had a boyfriend here and because of the quality of the courses. In Spain at the time, if you wanted to do a history of art degree you had to study for five years and spend three on a common programme doing history and philosophy and other core subjects."

She found writing essays in English a little difficult at first, and felt slightly detached from some of the UK undergraduate behaviour. "Drinking seems to be such a big thing for them."

But what she has particularly enjoyed is the style of teaching. "Spanish universities are huge and 200 to 300 students listen to a lecture and then grab a reading list. Here you have seminars and are encouraged to think for yourself and speak out."

She plans to complete her PhD in artistic patronage of papal legates in 14th-century Italy and then look for an academic post in the UK. "In the UK, academics appoint people they do not know, even foreigners. I don't know anyone in Spain and I think this could count against me.

"I've seen many Spanish students come here for one year on an Erasmus programme, but I think I am the only one to have done their full degree here. It is less common as courses are becoming more flexible in Spain and you can do just a history of art degree in four years now."

Sasha Grillo completed his first degree in economics and business studies in his home town of Rome, and then decided to study sociology at masters level.

But he ran into a problem. "I tried the University of Vienna and three German universities and they all said that it was very difficult to switch subject like that. In Germany, they even suggested that I did the first degree again."

So in 1999 he came to the UK. "It is so much more flexible here than on the Continent. I studied for an MA in social and political thought at Warwick and am now doing a PhD in sociology at the LSE," he said. His subject is the framework of happiness in society.

"They are now becoming more flexible on the Continent. On average it used to take people about six years to complete undergraduate degrees in Italy as you were forced to do a lot of superfluous subjects. That is changing now and I think more people may study at home."

 Statistics section:  Socrates/Erasmus student mobility

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