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WEEKEND READING: Brexit will exacerbate regional inequalities in the UK and EU

  • 17 January 2021
  • By Julia Pieza

This blog was kindly contributed by Julia Pieza, a recent Oxford University graduate with a degree in History and Politics. Julia hopes to pursue a career in public policy with an interest in EU-UK relations, education and social mobility.

The end of the Brexit transition period in January 2021 brings many changes for the UK’s higher education sector. Though we cannot anticipate how exactly student demand could change, it is possible that numbers of incoming EU-domiciled students will decrease by over 50 per cent. In the Netherlands, the President of Maastricht University, Martin Paul, has already reported a 25 per cent decrease in UK student enrolment in 2019. However, the effects of Brexit on higher education are far more complex, and crucially they will not be distributed evenly throughout either the UK or the EU.

The Brexit deal agreed in December 2020 has salvaged the UK’s participation in research funding programmes such as Horizon Europe. Yet the UK higher education sector still faces the loss of fee income from students themselves, likely to amount to £40 million in the first year, if EU incoming student numbers halve.

From a regional point of view, international students contribute to far more than just universities, bringing significant economic and social benefits throughout the UK. On the surface, the regions that benefitted most from the economic contribution of international students in the 2015/16 cohort were – unsurprisingly – London (£4.64bn) and the South East (£2.44bn) according to super research by Kaplan International Pathways. Nevertheless, analysis of international students’ economic contribution per UK constituency shows that places outside London and the South East have also gained significantly. In fact, according to the Kaplan research, only eight out of the 20 constituencies that benefit most from international students are in London or the South East.

The parliamentary constituencies receiving the largest net economic benefit from international students in 2015/16 were Sheffield Central which received £226 million, equalling to £1,960 per resident and Newcastle upon Tyne East, which received £192 million, or £2,010 per resident. Lower living costs have contributed to the high numbers and concentration of international students in these constituencies but so has the renowned quality of education that UK universities provide. Overall, the direct and indirect contributions of students to local economies from tuition fees and from students’ disposable income have stimulated economies far beyond the costs involved.

Brexit is not set to erase these economic contributions entirely, since non-EU international student numbers will likely remain unaffected. However, the loss of over half of European students as a result of Brexit might manifest itself in greater inequality between UK universities and by extension their local communities.

Russell Group universities stand to gain from increasing EU student fees. Universities such as Oxford and Cambridge could receive on average £10 million more in fee income, whereas less prestigious universities stand to lose £100,000 on average. These losses will be compounded in the local economies to which international students contribute, since less prestigious universities may struggle to attract EU students as a result of higher fees. 

Though each university will set its own fees, from 2021 EU students will be expected to pay between £10,000 to £40,000 per year of tuition depending on degree, with medical degree fees appearing even higher. These fees may prove too steep for many European students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and countries where household earnings are yet to catch up to those of Western Europe.

Eastern and Southern European countries have in recent years sent significant numbers of students to the UK. In 2017/18 Greece, Romania and Poland sent over 26,000 students to the UK, where they benefitted from taxpayer-subsidised student loans. Yet the average monthly wages in Greece (€1,116) Poland (€880) and Romania (€682) were around half, or less, of those earned in the UK (€2,229) in 2017. In upcoming years, students not only from these countries but from all over the rest of Europe may choose universities closer to home, with greater ease of mobility and subsidised degrees.

A decrease in the number of European students choosing to study in the UK will not only have an economic impact, but also reduce social diversity at UK universities, since education access will become even more limited to those from wealthier households.

Meanwhile, the UK’s decision to replace the Erasmus+ programme with the Turing Scheme, estimated to support around 35,000 students exchanges from September 2021, has little detail available. The call for universities and colleges to bid for funding assumes that the significant administrative burden will fall on these organisations. Replicating the Erasmus programme had previously been called a ‘formidable challenge’ by the House of Lords European Union Committee. Presently, the Turing Scheme announcement has raised more questions than answers according to the Head of the International Study and Language Institute at the University of Reading, Professor David Carter.

However, given the uncertainty that preceded the Brexit deal, many UK universities have already sought alternative arrangements with their European counterparts. Some have developed close partnerships with European Universities to create a ‘Brexit-blind’ approach and continue cooperation. One example is the Oxford/Berlin Research partnership, which provides an avenue for the universities to apply collaboratively for EU Framework Programmes. Further, UK universities are physically exporting higher education abroad. The University of Lancaster and Coventry University are planning to establish international campuses in Leipzig and Wroclaw respectively, for an additional 2000-2500 students. These partnerships will undoubtedly provide valuable avenues for continued exchanges between British and European students, yet alone they may only fill part of the gaps resulting from Brexit.

Ultimately, inequality may arise between UK higher education institutions with the capacity to attract international students or pursue European partnerships and those without. After all, quoting journalist Janan Ganesh, the Director of HEPI, Nick Hillman echoed the danger of cumulative gaps and marginal losses as potentially the most damaging to the UK’s higher education sector.

In order to maintain UK universities as an attractive option for European students, and keep British universities diverse and accessible to all, the Government can act in several ways:

  • strengthen support for international students unable to pay high international fees by increasing the means of scholarships offered;
  • support UK universities, and other higher education institutions, in establishing European partnerships post-Brexit; and
  • ensure that the ‘Global Britain’ approach also supports the international students that graduate from UK universities by offering fair fees for the new post-study work visa.

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