The figures show the number of EU students applying to full-time undergraduate courses through UCAS, the online portal for UK university applications, dropped to 42,070 in the 2016 application cycle, down 7% compared to 2015.
Domestic applications also fell by 5% to 469,490, while overseas student numbers, in contrast, remained relatively unchanged at 52,630.
“The drop in applications from within the EU will worry universities”
Michael Peak, senior education adviser at the British Council, pointed out that the drop in interest from EU students is in line with its research on the impact of the UK’s impending exit from the EU on higher education.
Its survey, carried out by Ipsos Mori and published in December, suggested that 30% of young people in the European Union aged 18-34 were less likely to study in the UK following the referendum vote. The results reflected an earlier survey by Hobsons, in which 43% of respondents said the referendum would affect their decision to study in the UK, the majority saying negatively.
A dearth of concrete information about what Brexit means for universities and EU student fees and loan funding beyond 2017 is thought to have had a notable impact on EU applications this year.
The universities minister did not announce that EU students beginning their studies in 2017 would pay domestic tuition fees and retain access to student loans for the duration of their degree until October 11 – more than a month after UCAS applications for 2017 opened on September 6. The government has still not offered any information about the 2018 intake and beyond.
The drop “[underlines] the need for certainty for EU students as Britain withdraws from the European Union”, concluded Maddalaine Ansell, chief executive of University Alliance.
The results lend urgency to the sector’s call for certainty about what UK higher education will look like for EU students in the near future.
“To avoid future uncertainty, we need the government to extend these transitional arrangements now for EU students considering applying for courses starting in 2018,” urged Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK.
“Given the strong demand, there is a big opportunity to attract more students to study in the UK”
“Prospective European students will already be starting to consider whether to apply to study at British universities next year.”
“The 7% drop in applications from within the EU will worry universities and should convince the government that there is an urgent need to be much clearer about their Brexit priorities for the higher education sector and that a commitment to provide EU students commencing courses at UK universities in 2018-19 and 2019-20 with access to student loan funding is much needed and long overdue,” commented Pam Tatlow, chief executive of university think tank MillionPlus.
Despite their warnings, stakeholders framed the high demand for a UK higher education from both within and outside the EU as an opportunity for providers, and issued a call to arms to the sector and to government to make sure overseas students are welcome.
“Given the strong demand, there is a big opportunity to attract more students to study in the UK,” added Goodfellow.
“We need the government to take action to make the UK an even more attractive destination for qualified students and talented university staff from around the world.”
The British Council, meanwhile, will “continue to work hard with policy-makers and university leaders to ensure that UK education remains an attractive choice”, Peak said.
The data contained in the UCAS figures shows applications made before 15 January – the deadline for the majority of undergraduate courses in the UK.
There are, however, a small number of courses that have deadlines after this date, namely some art and design courses, which close on March 24. An additional round of applications, UCAS Extra, opens on February 24 for applicants that did not receive offers from any of their chosen universities.