The number of European Union applicants being accepted by English universities has risen dramatically following the lifting of number controls, prompting warnings about pressure on the student finance system.
Ucas data show that, five days after A-level results were released, higher education providers in England had placed 20,430 EU learners from outside the UK, 14 per cent more than at the same point last year.
This represents a significant acceleration of a trend: in 2014-15, English universities’ EU recruitment was 8 per cent higher than the year before.
Institutions looking to fill their places or to expand are thought to be drawing on the continental market in the absence of significant growth in the pool of domestic 18-year-old applicants.
Nick Hillman, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, told Times Higher Education that there were “a lot of drivers that mean this growth is expected to continue in the next few years”.
“There are push factors, in that people want to study in a good university system, and pull factors, which are partly financial, because universities can fill their places and these are full £9,000-paying students,” he said. “They also stand to get good students who can help the diversity of the classroom.”
There is potential for more growth in EU recruitment from outside the UK because the proportion of European applicants who ultimately accept an offer is currently 54 per cent, compared with 73 per cent for UK applicants.
At home, and in arrears
But while many will welcome the increased international diversity on campus, there are concerns about the impact on the student finance system because it can prove difficult to secure repayments on tuition fee loans if learners leave the UK.
Data published by the Student Loans Company in June show that 10 per cent of EU borrowers who studied at English universities had provided no details of their income and had, as a result, been placed in arrears. The company was seeking information about another 16 per cent who were not currently repaying.
The amount owed by EU students attending English universities stood at £343.6 million in 2013-14, up 634 per cent in four years.
Mr Hillman said that the UK should consider setting up bilateral loan collection arrangements where possible. He also suggested that it examine the example of New Zealand, where foreign graduates who leave the country are made to pay commercial interest rates and, if in arrears on student loans, risk having their passports confiscated on their return.
“This is a problem, and if there are more EU students the scale of the problem will get bigger,” Mr Hillman said. “I’m not suggesting that we have a system where we start snaffling people’s passports away, but at the moment we have a system that is definitely too lax.”
Universities across the UK had placed 461,120 applicants by the end of 17 August, up 3 per cent on the same point last year. Recruitment was up 6 per cent at the most selective institutions, up 4 per cent at medium-tariff universities, and was flat at lower-tariff institutions.
UK-wide, the growth in EU recruitment was greatest at medium-tariff institutions – 12 per cent. The rise prompted speculation that universities that had been squeezed by the expansion of elite institutions were turning to continental applicants. EU recruitment was up by 11 per cent at high-tariff universities, and by 7 per cent at lower-tariff institutions.
Across the UK, the number of EU students given places was up 10 per cent, but it was down 6 per cent in Scotland.