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Brexit and UK Universities: How might higher education be affected?

Last Updated: 02 May, 2019

Further to our recent blog post on Brexit and the independent school sector, we delve a bit further into the affects Brexit might have on international students coming to study in the UK for higher education…

Little progress seems to have been made by the UK’s government over the last few weeks in terms of securing a deal to leave the EU and reassure millions of people what a post-Brexit Britain may look like. Amongst those who are concerned will undoubtedly be the hundreds of thousands of international students who choose the UK to proceed with their higher education. Particularly students coming from EEA countries may be wondering what affects Brexit might have on the admissions procedures into UK universities.

What do we know so far?

Should a deal eventually be reached between the UK and the EU, there will be no change to the immigration status of EU students who currently reside in the UK or begin their course before the government's Brexit implementation period begins on 31st December 2020. Further details on this were set out in the government's Statement of Intent on the EU Settlement Scheme.

In terms of tuition fees, the UK government has confirmed that EU students starting a course in 2019–20 (the first cycle post-Brexit) will still be eligible for home fee status and for financial support as per existing rules. This should provide some reassurance to EU students who are currently in Y13 at school and intend on beginning a university course in September 2019.

Jo Johnson, former Minister of State for Universities and Science, confirmed that if EU students studying in the UK currently receive student loans from the SLC (Student Loans Company), they will continue to receive this funding until they complete their course.

The fee status of EU and EEA students starting courses at UK universities from 2020–21 has not yet been determined by UK governments. Likewise, it is unclear whether SLC will continue to offer their support. There will be a new immigration system (expected to be in place from 1st January 2021). Anyone intending to come to the UK to study from January 2021 will need to apply under the relevant category of the immigration rules in place at that time. This could deter EU and EEA students from applying, given the immigration process will be more complicated.

Britain leaving the EU will not affect the current processes in place for international students from outside Europe (such as Russia, China, USA) who come study at UK universities. Only students from EEA countries and non-EU EEA (Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) students will likely be affected by the new immigration rules.

How might UK higher education be affected?

At present, there is a large proportion of EU students currently studying in the UK. The figures currently stand at over 125,000 EU students (approx. 5%) study at UK universities. In turn, this is estimated to have contributed £2.7bn to the British economy and also create approximately 19,000 extra jobs. Obviously, UK universities are concerned whether Brexit will deter EU students from applying for places and what affect it may have on the diversity of their institutions.

Alongside the diversity of student intake, UK universities employ a huge amount of both academic and support staff from EU countries. For example, nearly a quarter of staff at the University of Kent are from non-British EU countries. After the referendum, the University of Oxford which also employs a great deal of non-British academics and administrative staff, was quick to reassure its international employees were in safe hands:

The University recognises there has been a great deal of uncertainty following the UK vote to leave the EU and wants to reassure international staff that their contributions to research, teaching and administration have never been more welcome and important.

Other areas in higher education that may be affected by Brexit include both funding and research grants provided by the EU. The EU makes substantial financial contributions to research in UK universities, on average it amounts to around £1bn per year. Whether or not the UK will see a decrease in research contributions very much depends on the precise nature of the final Brexit deal.

The government has confirmed that there will be no immediate change to the UK university sector’s involvement with EU programmes such as Erasmus. The Erasmus Programme (European Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students) is an EU student exchange programme used by major universities across the continent. Both incoming and outgoing students on the scheme will continue with their exchanges as planned. From 2021 though, the rules may change depending on the outcome of Brexit.

The Russel Group (formed of several top-ranking universities in the UK) has publicly acknowledged Brexit, reassuring students that they are working with the government to ensure that universities and the research community receive the best possible outcome from the negotiations to leave the European Union.

Anton Muscatelli, chairman of the Russell Group, didn’t appear concerned about what effect Brexit might have on student recruitment. He said overseas students could soon make up 50% of the student body at many British institutions. With EU students deterred from applying, this would most likely involve heavy recruitment from India and China, he added:

Many universities will try to do this because it will be the only way to respond to a sudden fall in income," he told The Times newspaper.

The figures do show that student recruitment has been impacted somewhat by a decline in applicants from Europe. After several years of growth, the number of EU students enrolling at Russell Group universities for the 2018—2019 academic year fell slightly by 3%.

Outside the EU, China remains the leading country in sending their students to UK universities. The number of Chinese students in the UK far exceeds any other nationality from outside the EU; almost one third of the UK's non-EU students are from China. According to figures released by the Chinese embassy in the UK, last year there were 170,000 Chinese students studying in Britain.

UK universities aren’t the only institutions concerned by Brexit. Universities across Europe will need to decide whether UK students studying in their countries will remain classified as “Home-EU”, thereby paying such fees. Any change in these rules, may impact the UK student intake at many European universities, affecting both income and diversity of student life.

How can we help you?

There is still a lot to be decided in terms of a final Brexit deal. Whilst the government ploughs on, UK Study Centre continues to support and advise international students wishing to study in the UK, regardless of the Brexit outcome. We have helped hundreds of students access some of the very best universities in the UK and around the world. Post Brexit, very little will change for our non-EU international students in terms of UK university admissions. But whatever the outcome for our EU students, we will continue to advise in the best possible way. Find out more about how we can help you here.

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