Let me share some good news: according to the British Council’s latest annual student consideration research, prospective European students still consider the UK as their number one English-speaking study destination despite the impact of Covid-19 and Brexit.
When thinking about studying abroad, European students appear surprisingly immune to current uncertainties. The Brexit Temperature Check surveyed nearly 1,000 students in France, Germany, Greece and Poland in March this year. It showed that 30 per cent consider study abroad as an option, with half of those considering English-speaking markets showing no year-on-year change from 2020. But perhaps of greater interest is that among the young Europeans who would like to study in an English-speaking country, 70 per cent still put the UK as their preferred destination (again, no changes here from pre-pandemic times).
European students want to come to the UK to study. They value the UK’s high-quality institutions, the range of degree programmes and especially the teaching offer; quality of education is the single most important pull factor, followed by exposure to an English-speaking culture and living environment.
Our surveyed students also admired the UK institutions’ response to Covid-19 and rated their blended learning and online options much more positively compared with the US and European markets such as Germany and the Netherlands.
Alas, incoming student numbers tell a different story. The new academic year will see far fewer European students mixing on UK campuses; we’re not going to have 147,800 students, including postgraduates, as we had in 2019-20. Recently, Ucas released its application data to the 30 June application deadline. This confirmed that undergraduate applications from EU students dropped by 43 per cent, down further from the 40 per cent plunge that was reported in February.
Drawing on the responses to the Brexit Temperature Check, this drop in numbers appears to have little to do with the pandemic. Only 16 per cent of students reported that a low Covid-19 risk in a country is an important factor in their decision. As in previous years, cost of living (45 per cent of students) and cost of tuition (42 per cent) were the two most important factors that dissuade students from coming to the UK.
Cost of tuition is, of course, connected to the UK’s exit from the European Union. The coming academic year will be the first year where EU students pay international fees and no longer have access to student loans and grants. As for living costs, one German student put it: “I worry that it will be even more expensive in England. With Brexit, import duties have been increased.”
Universities know this and are keen to remain attractive to the many talented students from the continent, who typically have very high acceptance rates and often stay on for postgraduate or PhD studies. The British Council EU region ran two promotional campaigns, in December 2020 and May 2021, where we shared institutional support packages. Around 50 universities took part each time, each offering various levels of support to European students. These were well received by prospective students
The will to study in the UK is there, clearly articulated by the 70 per cent of students who have the UK as their preferred study destination. And UK institutions are keen to welcome European students to their courses, and to sow the seeds for future knowledge exchange with our closest neighbours.
This gives us an excellent starting point for a wider conversation about what further support could be offered to European students both by government and by UK universities themselves via scholarship schemes. Currently, government scholarship schemes such as the Chevening, Marshall and Commonwealth scholarships, which support about 2,000 students to the UK each year, and the British Council’s own Great scholarships, offered to around 100 students in partnerships with universities, don’t include students from the EU. They are also focused on postgraduate students.
This autumn’s Comprehensive Spending Review offers scope to expand these schemes, or create new scholarships, to include EU undergraduates.
If an EU scholarship offer could be included in any of these schemes, this would send the same welcoming message to European students that has been sent to students in other regions: you want to come, and we want to have you.
Almut Caspary is EU research co-ordinator at the British Council.