What Does Brexit Mean for European Higher Education?

5 min read

Joanna Hughes

Brexit will have a pervasive impact on society in the UK and the EU. Higher education won’t be immune from its repercussions. While we can’t yet begin to comprehend exactly how Brexit will play out when the new school year begins, we do have some sense of what to expect.

Below we will look at changes the higher education sector in the UK might see in a post-Brexit future

Impact of Brexit on UK Enrollments:

Amidst the uncertainty of 2016’s Brexit referendum, UK universities are seeing an impact on revenue from EU students. So what will the future hold, now that students from the EU/EEA and Switzerland will no longer have “home fee status” as of the end of the 2020/21 academic year? This means they’ll not only lose access to the same tuition fees and financial support as UK students, but they’ll also face stricter visa and immigration programs. Additionally, they’ll no longer be eligible to participate in higher education exchange through Erasmus+. 

Not all universities will be equally affected, however. While top-tier universities like Oxford and Cambridge will see ongoing demand, less prestigious universities will see more significant losses, many of which are already reeling in the wake of COVID-19. 

Navigating the Way Forward

The potential implications of Brexit haven’t exactly been a surprise. However, the pandemic was unanticipated, which resulted in even greater challenges for international recruiters. Study.edu CEO Gerrit Bruno Blöss says, “Most universities have been overhauling their marketing and recruitment campaigns for a while. After all, the announcement did not come unexpectedly.”

The strategies they’ve devised are diverse and manifold. “Some [UK universities] may shift focus to more affluent origin countries. At the same time, some are planning to open satellite campuses in continental Europe, to offer degree programs in trans-national education settings. A few institutions are also evaluating potential legal loopholes to charge different fees,” Blöss continues. 

The UK universities have been losing revenue from EU students for five years. However, they’ve still seen a record number of international enrollments thanks to growth from non-EU markets, according to Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data shared by market intelligence resource ICEF Monitor. While the number of first-year students from EU countries dropped by two percent in a single year, the number of non-EU students spiked by 23 percent. Leading the way are international enrollments from China and India. Experts say this upward trend can be attributed to positive perceptions about the UK, including attractive post-study work options and its favorable response to the pandemic.

“The overall picture provided by the HESA data is one of a new buoyancy in the UK’s international competitiveness among leading study destinations – an impression that is backed by recent agent and study surveys that give the UK high marks for attractiveness,” concludes ICEF Monitor. 

Where Will Students Go Instead? 

At the moment, a third of international students attending UK universities are from the EU. Which begs the question: Where will they go, if not to the UK? According to a Study.eu survey, the Netherlands tops the list. A whopping 49% of respondents said they’d choose the Netherlands if studies in the UK became too expensive. 

Germany, France, Ireland, and Sweden made up the top five with 36%, 19%, 16 %, and 14%, respectively, while Denmark (13%), the US (13%), Italy (13%), Spain (9%), and Switzerland (7%) rounded out the top 10. 

The Future of International Exchange in the UK

While the UK has withdrawn from Erasmus+, it’s eager to demonstrate its ongoing commitment to international exchange. Enter the Turing Scheme. Named after mathematician Alan Turing, the program will enable up to 35,000 UK students to study or worldwide. The UK has invited universities and other organizations to apply for grants to fund placements and exchanges. Once grants are awarded, universities will invite their students to apply for funding. 

Like Erasmus+, the Turing Scheme will cover university students, as well as vocational training, apprenticeships, and reskilling. Unlike Erasmus, however, the Turing Scheme won’t offer placements for staff and youth workers. The Turing Scheme also differs from Erasmus in that the former will offer placements across the globe. At the same time, the latter is focused primarily on the EU, with some paying non-EU participants. 

It’s worth noting that only students from Great Britain will be eligible for Turing. Students in Northern Ireland will participate in either Turing or Erasmus, thanks to an arrangement brokered by the Irish government. 

The Turing Scheme may sound hopeful, but some insiders insist that it falls short of what’s needed. "Despite the claims of this government, they have not backed up the new Turing scheme with the funding required to support disadvantaged students to study abroad," National Union of Students vice-president for higher education Hillary Gyebi-Ababio told BBC.com. "This will harm the futures of thousands of students for years to come."

While all stakeholders may not agree with what’s to come, they agree that delivering the right messages to the world is vital. Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) director Nick Hillman told ICEF Monitor, “[We need to] make it abundantly clear to people from the EU and beyond that our universities remain open to all.” 

Adds Blöss, “Britain’s universities have a lot to offer, but they are facing strong competition on the continent. If they want to continue to attract students from the EU, they will need to communicate their excellent value proposition and make it clear that EU students are still welcome.” 

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