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Why are EU student numbers growing so fast?

  • 4 February 2016

The new UCAS figures on applications to higher education are ‘the first reliable indicator of demand for UK higher education this cycle.’

The main headline is one of broad stability:

UK applicant numbers (495,940) have decreased slightly (-0.3%), due to fewer English applicants (-1%) mostly aged between 20 and 34. The number of applicants from Northern Ireland has risen by 2%, and by 1% from Scotland and from Wales.

But there is a notable increase in people from other EU nations applying to study in the UK (albeit from a lower base):

EU applicants (excluding UK) increased by 6% compared to the previous cycle, to 45,220.

Such growth has taken some people by surprise. But it was predictable because the removal of student number controls made it easier for institutions to recruit people from other EU countries. In 2014, a HEPI report on the removal of student number controls said:

To date, there have been weak incentives on English institutions to recruit students actively from the rest of the EU because, unlike other international students, they have fallen within the student number caps.

Despite the strengths of British universities, such as their league table performance and instruction in English, many EU citizens may be put off from travelling to another country to study at undergraduate level when it is so much more expensive than studying at home.

However, when number controls are removed [in England], there will be clearer incentives for institutions to recruit EU students: as a way of maintaining entry standards; increasing income; and mitigating the effect of demographic change.

It therefore seems likely that enrolments from EU citizens will grow: UCAS data show a 12 per cent increase in placed applicants from the EU at the most selective English institutions in 2014/15 and an 8 per cent increase at lower-tariff institutions – much higher than for home students in both cases, though from a lower base. In a recent Universities UK survey:

‘A number of vice-chancellors noted undergraduate recruitment from the EU as a potential opportunity for growth, particularly in the context of increased competition among higher education institutions, and decreasing supply of UK-domiciled undergraduates due to the demographic dip in young students.’

If this were to occur, the challenges in collecting loan repayments from people outside the UK will become even more significant. There are currently around 60,000 undergraduates at English universities from other EU countries, and EU students have £690 million of outstanding debts with the Student Loans Company. The loans are subsidised by British taxpayers but have proved notoriously difficult to collect since the first full cohort of eligible EU students became liable for repayment in 2010.

Given the cost to British taxpayers, it is surprising that the Government has not included higher education finance in the Balance of Competences reviews that it has been conducting on the EU’s powers over the UK. They could, for example, have evaluated the scope for introducing a system of lower fees for home students within the EU, as with in-state fees in the United States, on the grounds that UK families are already contributing to their local education systems through tax. This silence is particularly notable given that the debate on Scottish independence included discussion of how the fee rules operate within the EU.

Ministers also appear not to have joined up their commitment to remove student number controls with their tough rhetoric on immigration. If more students do arrive in the UK from the EU as a result of the removal of student number controls, it will be even harder to hit the receding target of reducing net inward migration to below 100,000. If official policy is to encourage EU students to come and study in the UK, it is yet another argument against the inclusion of students in any future migration targets.

Beyond the challenges of securing repayment from graduates who work outside the UK and the clash with the Government’s migration target, there are clear benefits from recruiting more students from the EU. Research HEPI has undertaken in conjunction with the Higher Education Academy shows home students relish the chance to study at institutions with diverse student bodies. Other HEPI research undertaken with Kaplan shows applicants look forward to this too. Given the relatively low propensity of UK students to spend time studying abroad, the benefits are magnified – in other words, you can arguably get some of the benefits of studying abroad by staying at home if the student body is more mixed (and assuming different nationalities mix on campus).

Whether the growth in EU students will have a role in the forthcoming referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU is unknown. Those wish to stay in, which includes the vast majority of university leaders, say our campuses will become less diverse if we leave, leading to all sorts of unfortunate consequences. Those who wish to leave say EU students will still want to come and study here (just as many non-EU students do) but they would have to pay their way – last year’s UKIP manifesto said EU students ‘will of course be welcome to apply for places at UK universities as self-supporting international students.’

One intriguing unknown is what would happen if number controls were ever to be put back on (as some people regard as inevitable and as Labour would probably have done had they won the 2015 election). If this were to happen after an influx of EU students, would institutions redirect their efforts towards recruiting more UK-domiciled students within the new fixed totals or would EU students continue taking a higher proportion of available places than in the past?


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