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UK ‘must prioritise’ European recruitment to maintain global position

The UK must prioritise student recruitment in Europe if it is to maintain and improve its global study destination position further, according to new research.

The EU should "be treated as a regional priority" for international recruitment with appropriate policy focus, resource and investment to other important markets, the report maintained. Photo: pexels

The government, together with universities, must also build evidence around international graduate outcomes

The International Student Recruitment from Europe: The Road to Recovery report, published by Universities UK International and Studyportals, stated that the UK’s exit from the EU has detrimentally impacted the popularity of the UK among students across the continent.

“Recruitment from across Europe has long been vitally important to our universities,” said Jamie Arrowsmith, director of UUKi.

“However, as the data set out in this report shows only too clearly, the UK’s decision to leave the EU has had a major impact on our ability to recruit students from Europe.”

The report highlights that, while UNESCO data shows that the UK was the first or second most popular destination for 29 out of the 47 countries in Europe in 2019, interest has been in decline.

Latest UCAS data shows a 47% drop in EU acceptances from 2020 to 2021, and Studyportals has tracked a 28% drop in page views of UK courses from 2019 to 2022, it added.

Student interest in both undergraduate and postgraduate courses decreased in 10 markets across the continent from 2019 to 2022, it found.

“There are, of course, new barriers and challenges,” Arrowsmith added.

“Students from the EU face higher costs and new immigration and visa requirements. We are witnessing a transition towards a new model, with recruitment from Europe becoming more aligned with broader international trends – to become a slightly more mature, postgraduate cohort.”

The paper urges the UK government to “address practical barriers to student mobility”, including the “comparatively more expensive” visa costs and the NHS health surcharge, which a previous paper in the series noted.

“Targeted scholarships and access to legitimate and secure alternative finance services might help to soften the blow of losing access to UK student finance in the form of tuition-fee loans,” the research noted.

The government, together with universities, must also build evidence around international graduate outcomes, including those of European students who are using the Graduate route.

“While these interventions cannot replace all the privileges of free movement, they may provide a degree of mitigation,” the research acknowledged.

Europe must be recognised as a target region in any future iteration of the government’s International Education Strategy, while other education internationalisation activities and initiatives should be supported in order to “provide a cross-cutting benefit to student recruitment”.

Examples of activities include focusing on the strategic importance of inward and outward student mobility, and “the significant opportunities” that exist in UK transnational education provision and online and distance learning.

“In spite of a sharp drop in market share, the UK retains a lead over other anglophone competitor destinations”

The paper continued that plans to maintain the student recruitment target should double down on European students and “not simply [rely] on other growth markets to make up the shortfall”. Reliance on other markets would “compound the UK’s risk exposure”, the researchers warned.

“The drop in interest in the UK by students from Europe is concerning, particularly as we see more programs taught in English offered across Europe and globally,” Thijs van Vugt, director of the Analytics and Consulting Team at Studyportals, added.

“There are however still country-specific and discipline-specific opportunities to be found and many approaches that can strengthen student recruitment from Europe and make the UK less reliant on a limited number of source countries.”

Italy, France, Spain, Germany and Ireland are identified as established markets, while the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland are all “high potential markets”.

Romania, Portugal, Poland and Greece are listed as speculative markets.

The third report in the UUKi recruitment outlook series however also found that European student search interest is starting to stabilise.

“In spite of a sharp drop in market share, the UK retains a lead over other anglophone competitor destinations and has a very strong brand in Europe for online provision, advantages that the UK should now seek to secure and build on,” researchers contended.

“The UK also has significant advantages,” Arrowsmith continued.

“Our institutions have a fantastic reputation, instruction in English remains very popular and professionally desirable, and one-year masters programs mean that students can enter work or transition to further study more quickly than in many other countries.

“While it may be tempting to think that recruiting students from EU member states may now be too difficult, it would be a mistake to discount the possibilities. Students from Europe can offer our universities so much. We should work closely with government and other stakeholders to identify, develop and promote the continued opportunities for students from our closest neighbours.”

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