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What has caused European students’ recent U-turn on applying to UK universities?

The Migration Observatory (MO) at the University of Oxford and ReWage at the University of Warwick have recently released a report on the dramatic decline in migration from the EU. Data shows that just 43,000 EU citizens received visas for work, family, study, or other purposes in 2021. According to the Office for National Statistics, this is a fraction of what the UK saw prior to March 2020, where the number of EU citizens migrating to the UK varied between 230,000 to 430,000 each year.

It’s no surprise then that the numbers of EU students to the UK have suffered a similar fate. The UK saw an over 40% decrease in main scheme applicants, resulting in just 16,025 acceptances in 2021. This is half of the number of acceptances registered in 2020, and a 10-year low. This dramatic fall in applications has been driven by a double loss. Firstly, the UK student finance support (tuition fee loans), and secondly, the removal of the ‘home-fee’ status. This has resulted in a drastic surge in tuition fees, with some universities charging up to £40,000 per year, which is far more expensive than tuition fees at any other European provider.

UCAS data on 30th June this year showed a further 18% decline in EU applicants when compared to the same point last year, pointing to another drop in acceptances for the 2022 intake. Ireland is the only EU country in the current cycle that has seen any application growth, with a clear correlation between Irish students maintaining their ‘home student’ status and access to loans. However, the number of applications to UK universities across the rest of the European market is mostly unanimous in its downturn. Northern Ireland is the only exception, with a 41% uptake in acceptances from the EU year-on-year. Interestingly, accepted applicants from Ireland also peaked at 2,490 this year (+14%). This is the highest number in a decade, and more than French and Spanish cohorts combined.

For the whole of the UK, the latest UCAS data (the day 28 report), shows that EU acceptances are down by 14% year on year, and a staggering 62% when compared to 2020 acceptances. Unsurprisingly, it’s Eastern European countries that have suffered the highest application decreases this year. Bulgaria, Romania, Lithuania, Hungary and Poland saw their applicant numbers go down by a third or more. Most Western European countries, although also in decline, capped their application losses at around 20% or less.

This disparity in numbers is also reflected in attitudes towards Brexit, which, according to the British Council report ‘Brexit Temperature Check,’ has changed over time. Given the number one factor influencing studying abroad decisions is cost/finance related, it’s not a surprise that the less affluent nations of Eastern Europe have hardened their views on the impact of Brexit. Cost is now a real barrier for many EU students. In an attempt to increase EU applications, The British Council have even asked for the creation of scholarships that will provide financial support for gifted students from the European Union.

Affordability is certainly starting to dominate conversations around overseas study. According to ICEF Agent Voice survey (January-May 2022) the ‘cost of study and living’ is the most important factor for students. This is now above work and immigration opportunities. Similarly, the ability to work during studies is currently more important to prospective students than post-study work opportunities. The countries that are considered cheaper based on tuition fees and/or cost of living are now drawing more attention, positioning them as alternatives to the leading English-speaking destinations of Australia, Canada, the UK, and the US.

By Kornelia Korol