The number of European Union students enrolling in UK universities could decline significantly in the wake of Brexit, vice-chancellors fear.
Non-UK EU nationals represented 6.4 per cent of all full-time undergraduate and postgraduate students at British universities last year, making a significant contribution to institutions’ diversity and tuition fee income.
But Michael Arthur, president of University College London, said that it would be much harder to attract EU students to a country that now looked “rather insular and inward-looking”. Nearly 13 per cent of all full-time UCL students are non-UK EU domiciled.
Professor Arthur told Times Higher Education he was worried that the cost of studying in the UK would become prohibitively expensive for many EU students, since there would be “no legal basis” for not charging them the same fees as international students from beyond the EU, which tend to be much higher, and in the event that EU undergraduates lost access to the UK’s student loan system.
The Student Loans Company has sought to reassure current EU students studying in the UK – and those looking to start courses this year – that funding will continue until the end of their course. But how much access future EU students will have to loans is unclear.
“If the British government cuts access to the student loan book, that would start to hit student recruitment into predominantly undergraduate courses,” Professor Arthur said. “I’m worried about it, and it could be quite significant.
“We style ourselves as London’s global university and in that context our European students and staff are a very significant part of the international profile, so it is problematic that we won’t have as much interaction and profile with European students. I think it changes the very nature of a major international university in a way that is not helpful.”
Analysis of Higher Education Statistics Agency data for 2014-15 shows that London-based universities and specialist institutions are likely to be disproportionately affected by any decline in EU student recruitment. Among larger institutions, non-UK EU nationals represented 18 per cent of full-time undergraduates and postgraduates at the London School of Economics, and 16 per cent at both Imperial College London and Soas, University of London.
Brexit could also significantly reshape recruitment to Scottish universities, which currently do not charge tuition fees to non-UK EU students, but may feel compelled to do so in future.
And, in recent admissions cycles, growing numbers of European applicants have tended to maintain overall recruitment levels to UK universities, with the number of UK-domiciled 18-year-olds stagnating or declining.
But Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that the impact might not be as damaging as some vice-chancellors feared.
“We don’t have as many EU students currently as we might have done because, until recently, they were caught by student number controls,” Mr Hillman said. “Universities have never aggressively recruited EU students in the way they have done with Indian students.”
Being able to charge EU students higher fees might mitigate the impact of any decline in recruitment, Mr Hillman added.
In the short term, universities have been seeking assurances about the status of EU students who are already enrolled or are due to start courses in September.
Institutions have also been seeking reassurance about their participation in the EU’s Erasmus+ programme, which enables students from across the EU to spend up to a year studying in another member country.