UK ‘could avoid’ post-Brexit recruitment ‘doomsday scenario’

Fees are seen by some as a proxy for quality, so an increase might not be all that bad, says Hepi report

August 8, 2019
Brexit protest in Westminster
Source: Getty

Far from triggering a collapse in recruitment from the European Union, Brexit could push UK universities to recruit more students from the Continent, according to a thinktank.

The Higher Education Policy Institute says there are “no grounds” for rejecting its own economic modelling, released in 2017, that said that Brexit could trigger a 57 per cent decline in enrolment from the bloc, albeit offset by the impact of the change in the value of the pound.

Nevertheless, in a report published on 8 August, Hepi director Nick Hillman says the most recent historical precedent points in the “opposite direction”.

Mr Hillman recounts that when Margaret Thatcher’s government decided in the early 1980s to remove subsidies for students coming to the UK from outside the European Economic Community, it was predicted that this would lead to a collapse in international recruitment.

In fact, the increase in tuition fees “set the ground for an explosion in [the recruitment of] international students”, Mr Hillman writes.

“The extra resources paid for agents to find potential students and for cross-subsidies for research, boosting the standing of our universities. The extra prestige so conferred in turn attracted yet more international students, completing a virtuous circle that remained in place, at least until the Coalition government in office from 2010 sought to dampen demand from international students,” he says.

Mr Hillman says the same thing could happen again, highlighting how raising tuition fees for international students in France was a key plank of that country’s drive to increase recruitment.

One recruitment expert previously told Times Higher Education that Chinese students in particular “feel that tuition fees of a couple hundred [euros, in France] seem too good to be true”.

Mr Hillman told THE there was “broad consensus” that an increase in fees and a loss of access to student finance would mean “far less demand” for UK higher education among European learners.

But, he continued, the historical precedent “tells a different story”.

“No one knows for certain whether the pessimistic economic modelling or the optimistic historical precedent is the better guide to the future,” Mr Hillman said. “Perhaps the impact of Brexit on student numbers will end up lying somewhere between these two extremes.

“What happens depends, to some degree, on whether the new crop of ministers decide to roll out the red carpet for international students as well as on how institutions respond to Brexit.”

Under Hepi’s 2017 modelling, the 57 per cent drop in recruitment from the Continent as a result of Brexit would represent 31,000 fewer incoming students and a £40 million loss in fee income.

However, the fall in the value of the pound could boost recruitment by 20,000, and increase fee income by £227 million, the study said. This would amount to a net loss of 11,000 students, but a net gain of £187 million in fee income.

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