While we, at The Document Centre, wish to remain neutral and non-partisan, we were interested to know how a British exit – or ‘Brexit’ – from the European Union would affect UK universities, the make-up of students going to them and, to a degree, to the UK economy. So we did a little bit of research …

According to ‘ICEF Monitor’, the “market intelligence resource for the international education sector“, about 125,000 European students study at UK universities each year. They say that represents about 5% of total UK university enrolment although that’s lower than we had assumed. According to ‘Universities UK’, the “voice of universities” in the UK, EU students generate £3.7 billion for the UK economy and help to support over 34,000 jobs mostly in and around the universities concerned. Hobsons* puts the monetary figure at an estimated £8 billion so clearly the exact figure is open to debate.

So, how would all of that be affected if the UK exited the EU following the June referendum?

Those in Higher Education in the UK are, of course, generally in favour of remaining in the EU. At the very least, the money coming into UK universities from non-UK students and EU research funding safeguards the continued economic health of the universities themselves and the jobs of those working within them, particularly where central government funding is reducing. Remaining in the EU also ensures, in principle, that the very best people are drawn to the degree courses, irrespective of where they come from. However, economics aside, one could counter-argue that UK students would stand a better chance of getting their desired university places and courses if there were less foreign students competing for the UK spaces. Competition for the best universities and courses is fierce and many UK students are not getting the places they wanted nor, perhaps, might have expected to get. So already we can already see that there are pros and cons for a Brexit. Furthermore, with EU membership currently capping what universities can charge EU students, any Brexit would potentially remove that cap and probably force universities to increase university fees, at the very least for EU students. This is a double-edged sword, of course. Higher fees will no doubt put off many of those European students, however one could also argue that any increase in those fees could perhaps a) take up the shortfall in income derived from the supposed falling level of enrolment from the EU and b) perhaps subsidise lower fees for UK students. Food for thought!

* A survey of 1763 responding students by Hobsons, the “student recruitment and retention solutions company“, found that nearly half of responding international students would view the UK as less attractive as a location for studying in after any Brexit. Only 17% said it would make the UK more attractive. When looking at just the EU student responses, however, more than 80% of the EU-only contingent stated that leaving the EU would make Britain less attractive (we suspect the issue of non-capped fees and greater difficulty for those wishing to remain in the UK after graduation may well play a significant part in that). Here are some more statistics from their survey:

  • 113,116 international student university places could be thought of as ‘at risk’ if the UK left the EU.
    Of those:
  • 50,056 EU student places could be ‘at risk’ and;
  • 63,060 non-EU student places could be ‘at risk’.
  • Just the latter alone could, according to Hobsons’ estimates, equate to a £690 million drop, per year, in university fees alone. However it’s only a projected forecast based on a student survey and what would happen in the reality of any Brexit may well turn out to be different. As we’ve seen in the press again and again, there are no certainties when it comes to the possible outcome and effects of a Brexit — it’s never happened before and there is no crystal ball.

While leaving the EU would almost certainly generate greater barriers for EU students wishing to study in the UK, any Brexit would not, of course, discourage all 125,000 EU students enrolling; some would continue to come here, of course, despite it being harder and probably more costly. The remainder would instead choose universities elsewhere. According to some, the biggest winners would be universities in Australia, Canada and the U.S. as many foreign students want to study in an English-speaking environment.

Overall, it sounds like the most important affects of leaving the EU would be:

  • a likely reduction in foreign students studying at UK universities;
  • a likely reduction in income for the UK universities (and thereby for the UK economy);
  • a likely increase in the number of UK students finding their ideal courses;
  • Whether jobs would be at risk is a whole other debate, however the balance of probability is that some jobs might be lost if university income falls.

Of course, we’ve only scratched the surface here and only time will tell what happens in the referendum, so watch this space!

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