Postgraduate enrolments to the UK’s top research-intensive universities from European Union countries have fallen sharply, according to new figures released amid warnings that the country’s higher education sector will “take decades to recover” from a no-deal Brexit.
New data collected by Russell Group universities show that the number of EU students starting postgraduate taught courses, such as master’s degrees, dropped by 5 per cent in 2018-19 compared with 2017-18.
That compares with a 4 per cent rise in enrolments on postgraduate taught courses in 2017-18.
Postgraduate research enrolments fell even faster, down 9 per cent on 2017-18 levels, according to the data for 22 of the mission group’s 24 members, which was published on 4 January.
Uncertainty over Brexit and the UK’s future relationship with Europe was likely to be a “significant factor”, said Hollie Chandler, senior policy analyst at the Russell Group.
“The drop in postgraduate research courses is especially troubling – these students contribute directly to the UK’s research capacity,” Dr Chandler said. “If we leave the EU without a deal, the uncertainty felt by prospective European students will only get worse.”
The number of non-UK EU undergraduates starting at Russell Group universities, however, rose marginally in 2018-19, by 1 per cent. This is substantially lower than in any of the four preceding years when student growth ranged between 4 and 7 per cent.
News of the drop in EU enrolments – which averaged 3 per cent overall – came on the same day that several UK sector groups, including the Russell Group, Universities UK, University Alliance, GuildHE and MillionPlus, as well as leading vice-chancellors, signed a joint letter to MPs outlining the perils of the UK’s crashing out of the EU without a deal.
The letter states that the “valuable exchange of students, staff and knowledge would be seriously damaged” if the UK leaves without a deal.
“It is no exaggeration to suggest that this would be an academic, cultural and scientific setback from which it would take decades to recover,” the letter says, adding that “university leaders are united in the view that the UK leaving the EU without a deal is one of the biggest threats our universities have ever faced”.
In their letter, university leaders say that the government needs to “demonstrate the required ambition, put the right measures and guarantees in place, and, crucially, avoid the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal on 29 March”.
They call for a guarantee that research funding from which the UK may be excluded at the end of March will be replaced.
The letter seeks “explicit assurance that if the UK is unable to participate in the European Research Council and Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions funding schemes, which support world-leading breakthroughs, domestic alternatives will be created with the same level of funding”.
Dame Janet Beer, president of Universities UK, said that “time is running out to make decisions on issues which will ultimately affect the country and society as a whole”.
“We are home to one of the best research systems in the world, attractive to stellar academics, top students and global partnerships, and we must not let this be compromised by a no deal Brexit,” she said, adding that “without cast-iron assurances, world-leading academics and researchers may leave for countries where access to ERC funding is not at risk, and those currently considering relocating to the UK may think again”.