European recruitment down 90 per cent at some UK universities

Continental students disappearing as post-Brexit funding rules kick in

January 27, 2022

Some UK universities have seen a complete collapse of undergraduate recruitment from the European Union, according to the first set of detailed data from admissions body Ucas.

Acceptances of EU students have fallen by more than two-thirds at dozens of institutions, while a few have experienced drops approaching 100 per cent of their recruitment in 2020.

Many universities appear to have mitigated the potential impact by boosting acceptances of UK undergraduates, but a number have seen falls here, too. Combined UK and EU acceptances fell by more than a fifth at 10 institutions.

Sector-wide data from Ucas had already shown that total EU acceptances had plummeted by a half, the probable result of Brexit changes that meant that many EU students were put off applying by higher tuition fees and loss of access to state-backed loans.

Some universities tried to mitigate the impact by offering scholarships or other incentives to keep the costs on a par with their UK counterparts, but the new provider-level data show that virtually all large universities have seen a fall in EU acceptances.

The only exceptions appear to be the two main Northern Ireland universities, which grew EU acceptances and are likely to have accepted a large number of students from the Republic of Ireland, who still face the same fee rules as their UK counterparts.

Of those with the biggest falls in EU numbers, the University of Bedfordshire had the highest percentage drop (95 per cent), with just 35 EU acceptances this year, down from 670 in 2020. However, the institution did see UK acceptances rocket by a third, and it was up overall when UK and EU numbers were combined.

This was not the case for some other universities that had large percentage drops in the number of EU students accepted.

The universities of Huddersfield and Hertfordshire both saw EU acceptances fall by 90 per cent and also experienced drops in UK placings, too – in Hertfordshire’s case by a fifth. Northumbria University was another institution with a large EU fall, of 84 per cent, or 430 students. Its UK numbers rose, but not enough to prevent a combined UK/EU fall.

Among larger universities, Coventry University had the biggest overall fall when UK and EU figures were combined, with a 29 per cent drop on 2020; its EU numbers fell by almost 600 students and UK placings by more than 1,500.

Analysis by Times Higher Education suggests that institutions experiencing the largest falls in EU acceptances as well as a fall in UK recruitment were most likely to be post-1992 universities.

Mark Corver, co-founder of consultancy dataHE and former director of analysis and research at Ucas, said the “substantial” decline in EU recruitment did seem to be “mostly related” to Brexit changes, although it was also potentially conceivable that a portion of the drop was down to EU citizens achieving settled status in the UK, and so changing the domicile they declared as Ucas applicants.

Where recruitment from abroad had been hit, the effect on individual universities would depend on which parts of the EU they had recruited from before – with eastern Europe more heavily affected – and other factors such as whether they targeted young or older applicants, Dr Corver said.

“It is likely that the EU outcomes for individual providers will depend as much on their particular exposure to these different parts of the market as it will whether they have maintained their appeal within each one,” he said. “Those exposed to older students or lower GDP-per-capita countries face the toughest conditions.”

Meanwhile, on UK recruitment, Dr Corver warned again that a growing gap between capped home undergraduate fees and uncapped postgraduate and international fees could push more universities to seek recruitment outside the home undergraduate market.

“The current exceptional levels of inflation – that will feed into universities’ running and staff costs – is accelerating the process of reducing the real value of the UK fees, which have been more or less fixed since 2012,” he said.

“This will inevitably drive universities to need greater shares of international and postgraduate students to balance the books. Left unaddressed, at some point there will inevitably be a collapse in the willingness of universities to supply UK full-time undergraduate places; it simply will not be economically viable for them.”

Rachel Hewitt, chief executive of the MillionPlus group of modern universities, said that although the “ongoing fallout from Brexit” had been overshadowed by other issues such as Covid, “the drop in EU students at modern universities will both limit the cultural and social diversity of the student body as well as impacting institutions’ financial security”.

“Different universities will take different approaches to addressing these challenges, but the impact they are having should not be forgotten,” she said.

A Bedfordshire spokeswoman said the fall in EU “applications and therefore enrolments” was “expected and something we had planned for”. It was also “not at the level seen in the Ucas statistics and is mitigated by our strong international recruitment”.

In a statement, Hertfordshire said overall student numbers “continue to remain stable” despite the EU fall. “Over the last two years, we have seen large growth in our international recruitment more broadly, from students outside of the EU.”

Northumbria said the EU falls were “expected across the sector”, adding that the “removal of government funding for EU students has made the UK an untenable choice for many”. However, it added that “application levels from high-quality UK and international students are extremely buoyant”.

A Coventry spokesman said the Ucas numbers “do not tell the full story” as they did not “include the vast majority of our significant international recruitment”. He added that “significant numbers of students are now joining our January and May intakes” while its campuses offered other start times throughout the year “to accommodate the changing needs of students”.

Elsewhere, the Ucas data also showed that the use of unconditional offers – especially controversial “conditional unconditional” offers in which students are given a certain place if they make an institution their firm choice – have virtually disappeared from use.

“Unconditional offer-making fell from a high of 15.7 per cent of all offers made in 2020 to 3.3 per cent in 2021, with ‘conditional unconditional offers’ all but eliminated within this cycle,” Ucas says.

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Reader's comments (1)

It isn't really news, but thanks for reporting what we all knew was going to happen! EU students can go to the Netherlands or Ireland to pay less AND receive a better education than at UK universities outside the top 15 or so. A bit of a no-brainer really.