UK ‘missing out on talent’ as eastern European enrolment plummets

Figures suggest just a tenth of previous entrant numbers from some countries got a study visa

January 6, 2022
A woman passes a shop front in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, in 2016
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UK campuses risk becoming less diverse and missing out on a host of talented students, higher education observers warned, after visa figures suggested a huge drop in the number of eastern Europeans seeking to travel to the country.

Information from the Ucas admissions body had already suggested a fall in undergraduate applicants of about 70 per cent from some eastern European countries in the 2021 admissions cycle, the first under new Brexit rules that mean students from the European Union face higher fees and no access to government-backed loans.

But the first data on visas, which new EU students – except those from the Republic of Ireland – now need to study in the UK, suggest a much bigger decline in the number of entrants who actually sought to travel to the country to attend courses in person.

According to the statistics from the Home Office, the number of visas granted to students from Poland and Romania – previously two of the 10 most popular EU source countries for UK universities – fell below 700 in 2021 up to October.

Although directly comparable figures for previous years are not available because study visas had not been required, there were more than 8,500 undergraduate and postgraduate entrants from Poland and Romania on to UK university courses in 2019-20, according to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

Other eastern and central European countries had similarly small numbers of issued study visas up to October: just 214 were granted to students from Hungary, 185 from Bulgaria and 177 from the Czech Republic.

In contrast, approved visas for students from western European nations such as France, Germany and Spain suggest that numbers have held up better compared with pre-Brexit enrolments: almost 10,000 visas were granted to nationals from these three nations alone.

The visa figures might not reflect all those enrolled at UK universities this year because a large number might have opted to study online, a more common occurrence for international students during the pandemic.

However, statistics from Ucas showing undergraduate students accepted on to courses tell a similar story: there were almost 1,100 students from Poland and Romania placed this year, down from close to 6,000 in 2020.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said he worried “a lot about the shift away from eastern Europe among those EU citizens coming to the UK to study”.

“It makes our campuses less diverse, reflects weakening ties with countries with which the UK has historic links and, sadly, suggests that you really need to be from relatively wealthy western Europe if you want to have a high chance of studying here,” Mr Hillman said.

He added that the loss of talent was also a concern, saying that one of his first jobs was teaching English to teenagers in Romania soon after the 1989 revolution, where he “saw first hand” students’ “hunger to learn” and their “innate ability”.

“Young eastern Europeans’ English language skills are often second to none, too,” Mr Hillman said.

The shift away from eastern Europe as a major source of recruitment for UK universities is likely to force institutions that enrolled large numbers of students from countries in the region to recalibrate their international strategies.

In its 2020-21 financial accounts, Solent University, which had hundreds of eastern European students enrolled in 2019-20, says that while the full impact of Brexit is still unclear because of the pandemic, September recruitment from Europe was “considerably reduced on previous years”.

It adds that its “reliance on EU market economies with lower GDP, coupled with the loss of UK student loans for European students, resulted in both a drop in the number of EU applicants and a loss of market share” in Europe. However, through work on its new strategy, “it had identified a fresh portfolio of EU country markets where we believe we can be competitive”.


Print headline: Eastern Europeans’ turn away ‘costs UK talent’

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