A number of English universities, including some in the Russell Group, have increased their recruitment of European Union students by more than 40 per cent after the removal of controls on undergraduate places.
The increases were part of a record 11 per cent increase in EU numbers across the UK sector in 2015-16.
Universities said that the rise came after they had chosen to step up recruitment on the Continent and was aimed at increasing diversity in their intake.
But funding for EU students, who are entitled to public-backed loans for tuition fees, has been criticised by Eurosceptics. Continental graduates who return home are less likely to be repaying their loans than graduates who remain in the UK, an issue that could come to the surface again ahead of the forthcoming referendum on the UK’s EU membership.
Diversity, demography and debt
The Higher Education Policy Institute had predicted in a 2014 report that there would be “clearer incentives for institutions to recruit EU students” once the government removed number controls in 2015, including “increasing income” and “mitigating the effect of demographic change” given the declining population of 18-year-olds in the UK.
Ucas’ 2015 end of cycle report suggests that this did prove to be the case. “EU domiciled acceptances form around 5 to 6 per cent of all acceptances, and have increased in each cycle since 2006, apart from 2012. In 2015, acceptances from other countries in the EU increased by 2,900 (+11.1 per cent) to a record 29,300, the highest increase in a single year across the reported period,” it says.
Figures for individual institutions recently published by Ucas show which universities increased EU recruitment the most in 2015.
Leading the list in terms of English institutions (applying a minimum bar of 100 EU students recruited in 2015) was University College Birmingham, where total EU acceptances rose from 165 the previous year to 285, a 72.7 per cent increase.
It was followed by the University of Northampton (up from 95 to 140, a 47.4 per cent increase), the University of East Anglia (up from 165 to 240, a 45.5 per cent increase), Newcastle University (also up from 165 to 240) and the University of Southampton (up from 290 to 415, a 43.1 per cent increase).
It was not just English institutions that increased recruitment from the EU. Abertay University went from 60 EU students to 130 (a 116.7 per cent rise) and Swansea University went from 120 to 195 (a 63 per cent increase). However, 10 of the 12 biggest risers were English institutions.
A Newcastle spokesman said: “The removal of student number controls has certainly given universities more flexibility to accept EU students. This, together with a deliberate strategy to recruit high quality EU students in order to further promote diversity in our student body, has contributed to our rise in EU student intake.”
A Southampton spokesman said: “Achieving a broad diversity in our recruitment has long been part of our ongoing plans and EU students are a part of that.”
He added that “we have increased our recruitment activity in the EU, with a full-time EU recruitment officer in the international office now that the student number controls cap has come off. It is a definite part of our international strategy.”
According to the most recently published Student Loans Company data on EU borrowers with income-contingent loans who studied in England, 10 per cent were resident overseas under the category “no details of income provided so placed in arrears”. Another 16 per cent were under the category “not currently repaying, further information being sought”.
Peter Lilley, a Eurosceptic Conservative MP who has previously criticised funding for EU students, said: “I am all in favour of EU students studying at UK universities. But they should not be subsidised by the British taxpayer.
“Since they are entitled to UK student loans, we should insist that the governments of EU countries from which they come underwrite their loans since there is a very high level of default by EU students and no way the British government can enforce loan repayment in their countries.”
José Manuel Barroso, former president of the European Commission, told Times Higher Education last year that Europe was now the “most advanced” single higher education region in the world, “even more than the US, in terms of student and faculty mobility”. He also argued that the UK derived soft power and financial benefits from increased student mobility via EU membership.