Brexit and higher education: the impact on students one year on

Blog posts

23 Jun 2017

Alex MartinAlex Martin, Research Intern

The global international student market more than doubled from 2000 – 2011, to 4.5m. In the UK alone, international students made up 19 per cent of enrolments in 2015/16, with five per cent originating from the EU. However, the latest UCAS figures reveal that applications from those living in the EU are down six per cent since last year.  So, one year on from the vote to leave the EU, why does this matter?


Firstly, the monetary benefits from international students are hard to ignore. They paid £4.8 billion in tuition fees during 2014/15, which accounted for 14 per cent of university income. Furthermore, their off campus spending alone contributed £25.8 billion in gross output. Admittedly, those from the EU are minority contributors to these figures; there fewer of them, and they pay a smaller tuition fee than their non-EU peers.  However, international students benefit the UK in more ways than just money.

International students also contribute to the dissemination of cultural and political values. For example, one quarter of the world’s presidents, prime ministers and monarchs were educated by the UK’s tertiary education system. A diverse peer group also challenges and inspires UK students, which prepares them for the international labour market, giving them a better worldview and helping them to develop a global network.


Undoubtedly, Brexit has triggered anxiety throughout the prospective EU student population, who now have the prospect of higher tuition fees, no access to loans, and no opportunity to work here after studying.

Regarding tuition fees, UK universities could increase their income by £187m if EU student tuition fees are harmonised with non-EU students. This is an impressive figure but the benefits would be concentrated in the upper echelons of our universities. So whilst better-performing universities were wiping the cream from their lips, others might find themselves in desperate times if both EU student numbers and income were to drop as a result of higher fees.

The inability to stay in the UK upon study completion can have a huge impact on enrolment numbers.  When the coalition government took away the right for international students to stay in the UK after their studies in 2012, the drop in visas issued to Indian nationals that followed was dramatic - from 68,238 at its peak in 2010 to just 11,864 five years later. We mustn’t think that EU students are any different.

For Masters students at some universities, a new pilot scheme is being carried out, which, as well as a streamlined application process, offers students the opportunity to stay in the UK for six months upon study completion. Although this is promising, in no way would such a scheme compensate EU students for the impact of Brexit.

The UK government recently guaranteed funding and support for those who start their course in 2018/19, following a key recommendation made by an Education Select Committee report.  However, the status of future cohorts is still up in the air. If the government is using students’ uncertain position as a bargaining chip in EU negotiations, it won’t last long, as a reduction in applications will only weaken their position. After all, universities benefit from EU students, and higher education is the fifth largest service export sector for the UK.

Beyond economic and residency concerns, the anti-immigrant sentiment that characterised much of the referendum debate does not present the UK as a welcoming place to study. The government conforms to the international definition of a long-term migrant: that they must reside in a country for longer than twelve months. However, that doesn’t mean that the government has to include international students in their migration target, as they currently do. In fact, this stance is in direct conflict with the government’s enthusiasm to attract more international students, as a target engenders a cap. This debate precedes the referendum, but it is even more prevalent with the prospect of EU students being embroiled.  

Looking forward – what next?

The market for international students is competitive, and the UK is doing rather well as the second most popular destination, behind the US, and being home to five of the top 25 universities in the world.

Opportunities for UK universities are also growing internationally. For years, UK-based universities have been opening up shop in countries with emerging economies, most notably China. And recently UK Vice Chancellors have been on an increased global campaign. As Dominic Shellard of De Montfort University told The Guardian, ‘Looking at this turbulent environment, we’ve decided we’ve got to try and shore up some of our existing markets and reach out to new ones.’

If the government intends to continue to support the market for international students, there is a battle of hearts and minds to be won. That may mean creating streamlined visas, discounting international students from the migration target, and giving people the opportunity stay in the UK, even for a short while, on completing their studies.

International students undoubtedly benefit the UK’s higher education sector. However, the prospect of Brexit has brought about major challenges for both universities and their EU-based prospective students. These are centred on recruitment, fees, loans, the immigration system and the reputation of the UK as a place to study. Yet, one year on and uncertainty looms in the air of offices, corridors, halls, and lecture theatres throughout universities across the UK. Although some stakeholders try to strike a positive note on their increased charm offensive, they do so without substance due to a lack of certainty. Yes, with Brexit may arise opportunities, but we must question to what extent this is a strategy to temper the outcomes of Brexit. Presently, a more sombre note is appropriate for both prospective EU-based students and those who will enjoy studying and teaching alongside them.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.