One highly amusing by-product of the frantic Canada-EU-Walloon trade negotiation finale last fall was watching the UK government suddenly realize that negotiating agreements with a 27-country trade bloc is actually really difficult and that this Brexit thing is almost certainly not going to end well. Which of course has some reasonably significant implications for UK universities. But how exposed are UK universities to Brexit?
Arguably, the bigger post-Brexit implications have to do with staff who may be denied residency, future staff who won’t be allowed entry and broken research partnerships with EU-funded colleagues on the continent. But I’m going to limit my analysis here to the student intake because it’s a little easier to quantify.
Let’s at what’s at stake for the UK in terms of international student numbers.
UK International Student Numbers by Country of Origin
Source: UK Council for International Student Affairs. EU shown in red, non-EU in blue
Somewhat surprisingly (to me at least), only about 30% of the UK’s international student body comes from the EU, with Germany and France the largest source countries. That’s about 125,000 students, paying roughly £9,000 per year, so that’s a £1.1B hit to the sector. That sounds big (and of course it’s nothing to be sneezed at), but in a sector worth around £33B, it’s not *that* crucial.
Now, how much of this money would institutions actually give up if Brexit goes through? That’s still a big unknown, because it depends on how many foreigners will be allowed to get visas post-2019 and whether or not students will be considered within the cap. For the past few years – since now-PM Theresa May became Home Secretary in 2010 in fact – the Home Office has been including non-EU students in the cap, and as a result international student numbers have been falling for quite a while now and are now about a third lower than they were before the Cameron government took office. A similar result with EU students would see a loss of about £400 million to the sector.
But, say some, that’s without accounting for any loss from higher tuition fees. Pre-Brexit, EU students pay what domestic students pay. Post-Brexit, they will in theory pay a higher “international” fee. These fees depend on the type of course undertaken: they average £13,394 for lecture-based programs, £15,034 for laboratory-based programs and £24,169 for clinical disciplines (see here for more details). Some feel that a shift to these higher fees may deter even more students. Frankly, this is a weak argument: if institutions really want foreign students, they can lower the fees (the bigger threat is probably these students’ loss of access to UK student loans, without which many might find even the current fees a struggle to bear). And anyways, these higher fees mean that if UK universities only lost 1/3 of their EU students, they’d actually be up on the deal thanks to higher tuition rates.
Anyways, as you can tell, I’m not convinced that the loss of EU students is in fact a major challenge to the UK higher ed sector, though obviously it might be to specific universities who are overweight with this group. It certainly makes you wonder why some institutions are musing about creating “overseas” campuses inside the EU (see here, here). The answer, primarily, is that these proposed campuses are about trying to get around research collaboration barriers more than they are about gaining student numbers through branch campuses. I can’t actually imagine many EU countries (or the EU itself) would be daft enough to leave such loopholes open, but you never know. But in any event, branch campuses are high-cost, high-risk and for students tend to be very much second-choice to home institutions. If there are a lot of frustrated, wannabe-English students in Europe as a result of Brexit, they’re probably likelier to head to Ireland or North America as they are to go to University of East Anglia – Lens, or University of Chichester-Malmo.
In short, the student-side of Brexit should be a lot less concerning than the staff side of Brexit.