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UK must not deprioritise European student recruitment amid Brexit challenges, UUKi and Studyportals warn

Students walking holding books

A major new analysis piece from UUKi and Studyportals urges the UK Government and universities to prioritise European student recruitment, and makes recommendations for stabilising and regrowing student numbers in opportunity markets.

European students make up the second largest group of international students in the UK, and in 2019 the UK was the first or second most popular destination for 29 out of the 47 countries in Europe for which UNESCO has available data.

But the UK’s exit from the EU threatens this position, with the latest UCAS data showing a 47% drop in EU acceptances from 2020 to 2021. Meanwhile, Studyportals has tracked a 28% drop in page views of UK courses from 2019 to 2022.

International student recruitment from Europe: the road to recovery identifies concerning trends by examining student interest from 10 of the most important sending countries of European students to the UK. The UK’s market share of student interest in both undergraduate and postgraduate courses decreased in all 10 markets from 2019 to 2022.

However, the Studyportals data suggest that European student search interest is starting to stabilise. The data also show that in spite of a sharp drop in market share, the UK retains a lead over other anglophone competitor destinations and has a very strong brand in Europe for online provision, advantages that the UK should now seek to secure and build on.

The report identifies established markets for the UK including Italy, France, Spain, Germany and Ireland; high potential markets including the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland; and speculative markets such as Romania, Portugal, Poland and Greece.

The authors say that the financial and administrative barriers now faced by European students will likely raise expectations and require more investment from the UK side to convince students that their experiences and outcomes will be worth the cost.

UUKi and Studyportals are calling on the UK Government for a clear commitment to retaining the UK’s position as top choice non-EU study destination for European students.

The report includes recommendations for government and universities, including:

  • To recognise Europe as a target region in any future refresh of the government’s International Education Strategy
  • To support and promote other education internationalisation activities and initiatives which can provide a cross-cutting benefit to student recruitment, such as focusing on the strategic importance of inward and outward student mobility, and the significant opportunities that exist in UK transnational education provision and online and distance learning
  • To address practical barriers to student mobility, including reducing visa costs and addressing restricted visa routes post-Erasmus
  • To build the evidence base on international graduate outcomes, including those of European students who are using the Graduate route

This is the third in the UUKi report series focusing on the UK’s international student recruitment outlook and how it can improve its global position, with the first part published in 2020, and the second part in 2021.

Jamie Arrowsmith, Director, Universities UK International said:

‘International students play a vital role in our higher education sector, enriching our campuses and ensuring that our institutions and students benefit from a diversity of views, interests and opinions. Recruitment from across Europe has long been vitally important to our universities. However, as the data set out in this report shows only too clearly, the UK’s decision to leave the EU has had a major impact on our ability to recruit students from Europe.

‘There are, of course, new barriers and challenges. Students from the EU face higher costs and new immigration and visa requirements. We are witnessing a transition towards a new model, with recruitment from Europe becoming more aligned with broader international trends – to become a slightly more mature, postgraduate cohort.

‘However, the UK also has significant advantages. Our institutions have a fantastic reputation, instruction in English remains very popular and professionally desirable, and one-year masters programmes mean that students can enter work or transition to further study more quickly than in many other countries.

‘While it may be tempting to think that recruiting students from EU member states may now be too difficult, it would be a mistake to discount the possibilities. Students from Europe can offer our universities so much. We should work closely with government and other stakeholders to identify, develop and promote the continued opportunities for students from our closest neighbours.’

Thijs van Vugt, Director of the Analytics and Consulting Team at Studyportals said:

“The drop in interest in the UK by students from Europe is concerning, particularly as we see more programmes taught in English offered across Europe and globally. There are however still country-specific and discipline-specific opportunities to be found and many approaches that can strengthen student recruitment from Europe and make the UK less reliant on a limited number of source countries.”

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