The number of European Union students studying for UK degrees overseas has soared as universities seek to combat the expected impact of Brexit.
There were 49,010 EU students enrolled offshore with British institutions in 2017-18, up 4,885 – 11.1 per cent – year-on-year, according to Higher Education Statistics Agency data released by Universities UK International.
Transnational education – including online and distance learning, franchising and dual degrees, and branch campuses – has been seen as a key way for UK universities to offset an expected decline in continental recruitment after Brexit, which is likely to happen when EU applicants lose access to “home” tuition fee levels and student finance.
The biggest host countries of UK transnational education in the bloc, according to separate UUKi data, are Greece, with 13,065 students enrolled (up 7.1 per cent year-on-year), and Cyprus, with 7,260 (up 57.7 per cent). Other key markets include Germany (5,220, up 16.6 per cent) and the Republic of Ireland (4,055, up 3.6 per cent).
Griff Ryan, transnational education projects officer at UUKi, said it was after the EU referendum in June 2016 that “we start to see a real uptick in growth in the EU”.
“We see it as UK universities making a conscious effort to reinforce their commitment to collaboration with partners in Europe,” he said.
The enrolment numbers – which exclude the three largest providers of transnational education, since they are traditionally regarded as skewing the data – are likely to rise further in coming years.
Lancaster University will open a branch campus in Leipzig next month, hoping to recruit up to 2,000 students. At the same time, Coventry University will open an outpost in Wrocław, Poland, with the aim of enrolling 2,500 learners.
Many other UK universities have set up partnerships with continental institutions aimed at supporting student exchanges and developing joint programmes.
But Mr Ryan said that clear guidance should be provided on the rights and protections for UK universities providing transnational education in the EU in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
In the meantime, the EU bump has helped to mitigate a flattening in the number of students from around the world enrolled on UK degrees overseas.
Including all providers, the data record the first year-on-year decline in the overall total in the decade that Hesa has been collecting the information: the figure is down 14,220, or 2 per cent, to 693,695.
This total includes the three providers that account for 52 per cent of all UK transnational education students – the Open University and the University of London, which have significant distance learning programmes, and Oxford Brookes University, which has a partnership with the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants.
Once these are excluded, the data show an overall increase of 6,355, or 2 per cent.
More providers were now accounting for a “more even spread of the total student numbers”, said Mr Ryan. Asia continues to host the largest number of transnational learners: excluding the big three, a total of 173,580.
Janet Ilieva, founder of research company Education Insight, said Brexit was likely to have a “paramount impact” on the number of European students choosing to come and study in the UK itself, especially from poorer countries.
“Transnational education is a cost-effective way for students in price-sensitive countries to continue to acquire UK degrees in more affordable ways,” she said.
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