As a quieter than usual UCAS Clearing season staggers towards the start of the Autumn term, UK universities expect to end up with about the same number of students as last year – but with a significantly reduced presence of travelling scholars from our neighbours in Europe and growing gap between richest and poorest students.
Despite more international students expected from outside the EU – providing the Covid quarantine restrictions don’t put them off – and experts such as Mark Corver, co-founder of DataHE and a former director of analysis at UCAS, tweeting that he reckons non-EU numbers will rise to around 47,000 undergraduate freshman this year, the student make-up of UK campuses is still going to feel a lot more British next year.
That was the headline message in a Times Higher Education snapshot by Anna McKie of the first student recruitment cycle since Boris Johnson’s ‘Get Brexit Done’ free trade deal with the European Commission was signed-off on Christmas Eve 2020.
The trade deal signalled an end to what seemed like never-ending extensions to the transitional arrangements after the Brexit referendum result in 2016.
Facing up to Brexit reality
British universities must now face up to the reality of the final divorce settlement with the European Union.
Most crucially for EU students it means the end of access to the UK’s Student Loans Company for the money to cover UK university tuition fees.
While the UK was part of the European Union students from EU countries could benefit from student loans, like their UK counterparts, and repay these over the 30 years following graduation when they were earnings a half-decent salary.
Also gone, except for those universities which fudged things this year, are lower tuition fees for EU students who under EU arrangements paid the same as UK students. EU students are now supposed to be charged the full international tuition fees, even if about 20 UK universities held them down for 2021-22 fearing a total collapse of EU student recruitment.
This is particularly devasting for EU students in Scotland, where they have gone from paying no fees to being charged international rates.
The result was inevitable.
Lack of access to the loans was a killer this year for students from poorer countries, mostly in East and South-east Europe, wanting to study in England. Instead of being charged just over £9,000, they now face tuition fees of £15,000 or more already paid by international students from the rest of the world and must pay upfront when they start their studies.
Mark Corver (@Markcorver) tweeted that on day 15 of this year’s Clearing cycle at the end of August, student recruitment was down by as much as 80% from major EU source countries such as Poland.
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise as the warning signs were there when a 43% fall in applications from EU students was revealed at the close of the UCAS deadline on 30 June 2021. This was followed by a 56% drop in EU students placed on UK undergraduate courses by 10 August – the Joint Council for Qualifications results day.
Now people like Corver estimate the final figure for EU students placed in UK universities will be around 13,000, compared with 31,000 last year when term starts.
Finance chiefs in no panic
But UK university finance chiefs are not in a panic-mode, or not yet, as they predict that at least the same number of UK students will be placed this year following a big increase in UK applicants from 514,020 last year to 551,620 this year.
In fact, the surge in A-level grades after UK school exams were cancelled because of COVID-19 means some popular university courses and those with strictly limited numbers like medicine are offering “bribes” to applicants who have met their entry requirements if they postpone the start of their studies until next year. The bribes include free accommodation for the first year if students opt to start their degrees next year.
Gap between rich and poor widens
Anna McKie also noted in another Times Higher piece that the gap was widening in the percentage of students from the most advantaged backgrounds compared with those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds and that the ‘posher’ universities, also known as higher tariff institutions, were growing faster than lower-tariff institutions.
This is also likely to be the case with incoming European students. Most of the EU students still coming to the UK to start their studies this year are from more wealthy EU countries like Germany, who are more likely to be able to afford the higher ‘international fees” being charged to European students by UK universities.
UK study becomes a luxury
Pundits like Vincenzo Raimo, the former international higher education guru at Reading University, believe that we are likely to see the type of European student coming to UK to study changing as only those with the cash will be able to afford the new luxury.
“I was always struck by the data from Reading University where around half of the then ‘other-EU’ undergraduate students paid tuition fees upfront. Of course, there were significant differences between nationalities, which explains the patterns we are seeing now between students from wealthier and less wealthy parts of the EU,” said Enzo, who is now chief relationship officer at Unilodgers.
So, while more wealthy Chinese and Americans – and better-off European students – should top up the university balance sheets, perhaps we should be asking whether UK higher education is supposed to be about more than keeping the finance directors happy?
Less diverse and less cosmopolitan
Dr Janet Ilieva, founder of the UK-based research consultancy, Education Insight, hit the nail on the head when I interviewed her for University World News about the drop in EU students interested in studying in the UK.
She said that together with 30,000 fewer incoming visiting and exchange students following the UK government’s decision to quit the next Erasmus+ programme, she feels the atmosphere at UK universities will suffer.
“It will make British campuses less diverse and less cosmopolitan and amplify the loss of full-time EU students on campus,” she told me.
And that can’t be a good thing for Boris Johnson and his government’s with their ambition to establish a ‘Global Britain’ which is open to the world.