From campus to crisis: the impact of Brexit on UK universities

UK universities are getting richer and EU and British nationals living abroad are bearing the brunt of it, new data shows.

While the income of higher education (HE) providers has been steadily increasing, both the total of EU tuition fees and the number of EU students who come to study in the UK has decreased since Brexit, according to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).

Total income of HE providers and total tuition fees over the years

The data suggests the rise is fuelled by non-EU fees, which has more than doubled since 2016/17.

Speaking on the viability of moving to the UK to pursue higher education, Cyrille Kummer, 16, from Belgium, said: “For some of us, the UK is hidden behind a paywall.

“Before, I saw the UK as a sort of international hub, very welcoming to any students around the globe.

“After this, the destination feels very restricted, limited only to richer families, UK students and scholarship holders.”

The number of EU students studying in the UK peaked for the academic year of 2020/21, the last year during which they were eligible for home fees, at more than 150,000.

The following academic year, in 2021/22, this number significantly dropped to just over 120,000, a decrease of more than 20%.

Comparison between the number of EU applicants and the number of EU students studying in the UK over the years

Kummer added: “Overall, with the high price of housing and difficulty in finding it, on top of the already extremely high tuition costs, the reward of a degree from a UK university does not seem like a viable investment.

“Because the UK was off-limits for me, I chose to apply to the Netherlands, like many of my friends who were faced with the same problem, as they were the biggest alternative: international, friendly, but above all, they are cheap.

“This makes them a very interesting option for many of us looking to stay in an international system.”

HESA supports these findings, stating that “the significant decrease shown in EU first year student enrolments can be attributed to changes in fees eligibility” as outlined by the Department for Education in December 2022.

As a result of this, the income of HE providers, based on EU tuition fees, has similarly dropped by 18.6% in the same year, from £1.35bn in 2020/21 to £1.1bn in 2021/22.

A frequently overlooked group of affected individuals are actually British nationals who have lived outside of the UK and have lost the right to pay home fees.

Anya Haldemann, 23, was born to a British mother, though has never lived in the UK.

Despite being a British national, Brexit has meant the removal of the fee structure that distinguishes between UK and international students.

“It’s even more interesting that it is no longer welcoming to its own, and I don’t think that Britain really ever considers that Brits abroad are really British,” said Haldemann.

“For a long time, the UK has treated foreigners, even people with British passports, unwelcome, in an unwelcome way.

“Brexit is still something I have to consider even though I am Brit. Unintentional or not, that is a failure of the British government.”

Haldemann, who completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto last year, had intended on applying to UK graduate schools and was alarmed at the long-lasting effects of Brexit.

She added: “I was sort of shocked by how much I would be on the line for just because of Brexit.

“It’s sort of bonkers to me that a vote that was held when I was 15, a referendum, an advisory referendum, has changed the scope of my life.”

Speaking on the varying levels of support offered by higher education providers in Canada and the UK to make studying financially manageable, Haldemann noted the lack of information readily available to prospective students in the UK.

She said that while universities in Canada and the US suggest routes to mitigate financial costs, including entry scholarships or reduced rates, such information is limited to very few universities in the UK.

“If you’re not telling people that we want to support you going here financially, then why would anyone ever assume that you would,” added Haldemann.

The UK, once seen as an international hub by students around the world, now appears to be becoming increasingly restrictive.

Comparison of the domicile of students studying at UK universities before and after Brexit came into effect

Haldemann said: “If you want to create a hub of internationalism and excellence and academics, you’re going to need to open that up to everyone.

“And they simply closed themselves off.

“We are an island and I find that quite frustrating and upsetting.”

As of May 2024, a survey by Statista Research Department revealed that 55% of people in Great Britain believed that it was a mistake to leave the EU, compared to 31% who felt it was the right decision.

The implications of Brexit will continue to influence the UK for years, and, as it stands, the prospect of the UK re-entering the EU remains off the table.

The Department of Education was reached out to for comment.

Related Articles