The following blog is taken from a speech given last week by HEPI Director of Policy and Advocacy, Dr Diana Beech, at the EURIE 2018 conference in Istanbul, Turkey.


Since the people of the UK voted to leave the European Union (EU) on 23 June 2016, the UK Government has been busy negotiating the path towards Brexit. For UK higher education institutions, the prospect of Brexit raises a number of as yet unanswered questions, namely:

  • Will we still be able to attract and retain the talent we need?
  • Will we still remain part of the European Research Area and able to participate in European funding and mobility programmes?
  • What will become of our international identities and aspirations?

As it stands, there are 438,000 international students enrolled at UK higher education institutions – that’s equivalent to 19 per cent of all students reading for higher education qualifications in the UK.

As of last month, according to data from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), the number of applications from international students to UK higher education institutions rose to over 100,000 for the first time in history:

  • 43,510 of these applications came from prospective EU students; and
  • 57,450 came from prospective students from elsewhere in the world.

Compared to the same point last year, this means the number of EU applications is up 3.4 per cent, while the number of applicants from outside the EU is up a staggering 11.1 per cent to the highest number ever recorded.

There may be various reasons behind this recent surge in international applications to UK universities:

  • First, access to the student finance system has been guaranteed by the UK Government for EU students embarking on courses in the academic year 2019/20 for the duration of their studies, so this could be the last chance for EU students to study in the UK on the same terms as their predecessors.
  • Second, the value of the pound (£) has fallen significantly since the EU referendum, making the prospect of studying in the UK cheaper for international students from elsewhere in the world.
  • Finally, the UK may also be benefiting from the ‘Trump card’ the USA has thrown us, with applications from Mexican students up by 53 per cent.

Although Brexit has not yet happened and the precise terms of the UK’s departure from the EU have yet to be set, these trends mirror those predicted by HEPI research published in January 2017. In the first econometric assessment of the big changes facing UK higher education, conducted in partnership with Kaplan International and London Economics, we revealed a mixed picture for the future of UK universities:

  • On the one hand, we found that the UK higher education sector could experience a loss of up to 57 per cent of EU students after Brexit – that’s a loss of over 31,000 students, equating to a drop in revenue across the sector of £39.5 million.
  • On the other hand, we found the UK higher education sector could profit from the expected continued depreciation of the pound, bringing in almost a further 20,000 international students and a further £226.4 million.
  • Netting this out, this means we could see fewer EU students on UK campuses but increased revenues of almost £187 million in the first year alone.

Our report is not the only research to predict increased income for UK universities from international students. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) also expects international fee income for universities to rise from £4 billion in 2016/17 to £5.1 billion in 2019/20 – that’s an increase of 27.5 per cent in real terms.

Assuming these predictions to be correct, reaping these rewards nevertheless depends on whether international students will still be able to come to the UK in high numbers after Brexit. Since the EU referendum was won, largely, due to the appeal of the UK ‘taking back control’ of its own borders, the Government has taken a broader look at UK immigration policy. The Conservative party manifesto last year stated in no uncertain terms:

It is our objective to reduce immigration to sustainable levels, by which we mean annual net migration in the tens of thousands Overseas students will remain in the immigration statistics and within scope of the government’s policy to reduce annual net migration.

The position of the UK Government towards international students could act, therefore, as a barrier to the ambitions of many UK higher education institutions, wishing to increase their international student intake in the future.

The UK Government’s position does not reflect well in the international media either. One report from the Hindustan Times from September 2017 described the UK as offering ‘the most student-hostile Government in the world’, who have ‘made life as hard as they can for foreign students’. This is not the kind of press the UK higher education sector either needs or deserves.

In an attempt to settle the question, the UK Government commissioned the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), in August 2017, to conduct a review into the impact of international students in the UK. Fortuitously for us at HEPI, we too had begun research just a few months before – again with Kaplan International and London Economics – looking into the costs and benefits of international students in the UK.

The research found, while international students bring in £22.6 billion in economic benefits to the UK, the costs of hosting them are tiny by comparison – at only £2.3 billion. This gives a net economic impact of £20.3 billion which, when spread across the entire country, works out at an average of £310 gain per member of the resident population.

But it’s not all about money when it comes to international students. It’s also about the cultural and social benefits that international students bring to the country. Now is the time to recognise the potential loss of diversity we could be facing on UK campuses if fees rise for EU students and those from less privileged backgrounds elsewhere in Europe cannot access the financial support they need to live and study in the UK after Brexit. Existing research by HEPI and Kaplan International shows prospective British undergraduate students firmly recognise that studying alongside international students will give them a better world view, help them to develop a global network and serve as useful preparation for working in a global environment.

Moreover, further research conducted by HEPI, showed that, among 377 serving heads of state and government in the world, 58 attended universities and colleges in the UK. This means more world leaders have been educated in the UK than in any other country, speaking to the vital soft power benefits of UK higher education. By opening up our doors to the rest of the world, we not only invite in future leaders, ultimately helping us to foster important links with other parts of the world, but we also have a chance to promote the values we hold dear to us – those of openness, collaboration, trust, respect and hope in building a better future, not just for ourselves, but also for others.

So, my wish for 2018 is that we will long continue to do this and that the UK higher education sector after Brexit will continue to be a truly global one, reaping the benefits of international students – not just economically, but culturally, socially and for the benefit of the wider world.