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Can the UK reimagine European student recruitment?

Just a few years ago, the number of students studying in the UK from Europe outstripped numbers from China as the number one international source market. They constituted about a third of all international students in the UK in 2020/21.

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The timing of this report is a reminder that investment in stability and diversity are essential for long term security

Direct comparison to non-EU markets, however, is misleading.

At that time, EU students paid domestic fees, had access to finance and freedom of movement, and in Scotland they enjoyed free education.

Every student was qualified both financially and academically to study in the UK. In recruitment terms, the UK was fishing in a barrel and many universities benefitted.

The true value of those students was never about tuition fees. They filled campuses with diversity and quality at all levels and all subjects. They worked part-time jobs and contributed massively to the economy both during and after their studies.

Those numbers are now dwindling and being replaced by surging postgraduate monocultural demand from Asia and Africa.

As we approach the three-year anniversary of Brexit, Universities UK International has joined forces with Studyportals to produce a detailed report that outlines the potential road to recovery for the UK in attracting students from the European continent.

“Please don’t forget about Europe”

“Please don’t forget about Europe” was the simple message for UK universities from Edwin van Rest, CEO of Studyportals and a Dutch national himself, speaking at the launch event in Birmingham.

“We love you. Our parents might be divorcing but your brothers and sisters still love you and that’s straight from the heart,” he said.

The latest UCAS data shows a stark fall in demand as a consequence of Brexit, and the inclusion of student numbers coming from the Republic of Ireland adds a further complication. Irish students are counted as EU domiciled but can still access finance and domestic fees under Brexit protocol.

Irish numbers may be negligible but it is no coincidence they became the leading source of EU applications from 2020 to 2021 with a 23% increase.

Jamie Arrowsmith, director at UUKi, was clear that it is time to move on and forget past glories connected to the loan system.

“The old system [pre-Brexit] is not coming back without some very big political changes, and none of us think that is going to happen. Looking for finance solutions that try and maintain Europe as an extension of the domestic markets is not the answer.”

Non-repayment of loans by EU students was hugely expensive to the UK taxpayer and criticised by many as an unsustainable system. The Student Loans Company never attempted to reclaim outstanding debt through foreign courts.

So can the UK rebuild its appeal among European students and reimagine a recruitment strategy without a finance system?

Wendy Alexander, vice-principal (International) at the University of Dundee, thinks it’s possible and reminded colleagues that despite the loss of student finance, expenditure on private education in Europe is high, saying “students going to an international school in Europe pay more than £6,000 per term”.

“There are many students in their senior year [who are] still paying an awful lot more than the sorts of money that you would be looking for to finance [UK education]. There are opportunities [to recruit], albeit in a more privileged segment than we were used to playing in.”

There are also many private universities across the larger European countries in Northern and Central Europe all charge comparable fees to the UK.

A positive sign is that in the 12 months leading up to July 2022, 5% of all study visas issued for the UK were in fact to EU/EEA students, with thousands of visas issued to students from the larger economies such as France, Germany, Spain and Norway.

The British Council joined UUKi in identifying Europe as a priority going forward. A spokesperson gave a positive update on lobbying the government for increased financial support for talented European students through the GREAT Scholarships system, saying, “we’re about to put the case forward to the cabinet office for an EU scholarship program. We do need the support of the sector to do it.

“We’re about to put the case forward to the cabinet office for an EU scholarship program”

“We are prepared to ask for more money and this report is ideal because we’ve got the evidence, but we also need the backing from the universities [to show it is a priority].”

Another statistic highlighted by the report showed that EU/EEA interest in UK online courses was higher than European equivalents between 2019 and 2022, suggesting online learning has the potential to re-engage price sensitive students if the cost and positioning is right.

The UK’s current political merry-go-round has cast doubt on the longevity of post-study work rights and immigration policy as a driving factor for recruitment.

The timing of this report is a reminder that investment in stability and diversity is essential for long-term security – and that the UK cannot change its geography. These opportunities exist on the country’s doorstep and there is a growing appetite to build bridges with European partners.

Van Rest was keen to remind colleagues that the UK has historically been the number one study destination for European students and is simply ‘too important’ to ignore.

“When I think about the world years from now, we still have a lot of work to do on the huge sustainable development goals, and if the UK and the EU don’t agree on those, then who will?” said van Rest.

“It’s critical that we keep those ties and we keep building for the economy, for the world, for research, and also for your institutions. Look at the lifetime value of that student; there’s high conversion rates, low visa rejection and really good retention in the classroom until graduation. Lifetime value is a very strong business [for universities to invest in European recruitment strategy].”

Do you represent a school, university or recruitment agency in Europe? Do you think the UK can repair its reputation in post-Brexit Europe and continue to attract talented students without a finance system? Contact to share your views. 

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