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What will Brexit mean for student demand?

  • 8 August 2019

The Higher Education Policy Institute is today publishing a new report looking at the impact of Brexit on student demand.

Two sides of the same coin? Brexit and student demand (HEPI Policy Note 15) contrasts two sources of information:

  • the best available economic modelling, which forecasts a sharp drop in the number of students from other EU countries after Brexit, due to the ending of their loan entitlement and the imposition of higher (uncapped) fees; and
  • a historical precedent from the 1980s, showing the abolition of subsidies for international students from outside the EEC led – against expectations – to an increase in their numbers.

The report concludes that the best available evidence points in opposite directions, but also notes that future demand from people in other countries to study in the UK will depend in part on government policies as well as the strategies of higher education institutions.

The report further notes that any scenario that reduces the number of international students, or limits access to the wealthiest people from other countries, would harm the diversity of universities.

Nick Hillman, the author of the new report, said:

There is a broad consensus that says Brexit will mean far less demand for UK higher education. When EU students are no longer entitled to taxpayer-subsidised tuition fee loans and face much higher international fees, they are likely to look elsewhere or stay at home. Research we published back in 2017 suggested the number of students who come from the EU could halve.

But there is an important historical precedent that tells a rather different story. Until the early 1980s, all international students coming to the UK were subsidised by taxpayers. At the time, the consensus said their numbers would fall off a cliff. In fact, the end of the subsidy laid the foundations for what eventually became a big expansion in international students. Universities realised they could charge fees high enough to cover the full costs of teaching and more. When international students subsidise other activities, such as underfunded research programmes, there is a strong incentive to recruit more of them.

No one knows for certain whether the pessimistic economic modelling or the optimistic historical precedent is the better guide to the future. Perhaps the impact of Brexit on student numbers will end up lying somewhere between these two extremes. What happens will depend, to some extent, on whether the new crop of Ministers decide to roll out the red carpet for international students – for example, by streamlining visa procedures, improving post-study work rules and clarifying the rules for EU students after Brexit. It will also depend on how institutions choose to respond to Brexit.F

Note for Editors

The Higher Education Policy Institute was established in 2002 to shape the higher education policy debate with evidence. It is a non-partisan charity funded by organisations and universities that wish to see a vibrant higher education debate.

The economic modelling referred to above was published by HEPI, Kaplan and London Economics in January 2017 and is available here.

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