Brexit might not deter students, but it could devastate global faculty and research
“The lifting of the cap has inadvertently made international strategies more real – at least when it comes to student diversity. Would a so-called Brexit end all of that? I don’t think so”
The lifting of the cap on student numbers at UK universities led many institutions to rethink their recruitment and internationalisation policies, with many putting greater efforts into recruiting students from within the EU than before, writes Vincenzo Raimo, pro-vice-chancellor (global engagement) at the University of Reading. Here he looks at how this has led to growth in European student numbers, and asks: how would this change if the UK were to leave the EU?
The focus of the majority of UK university international strategies for the past 20 years or so has been fee income growth. Constrained within a highly regulated system with strict limits on domestic students, the only way universities could grow was to recruit (unregulated) international fee paying students. As well as adding to the diversity of our universities and the quality of student experience, these international students brought income which allowed our universities to grow and develop, appoint new faculty and build new and better facilities.
While there has been growth in all student types, international students have grown at a faster rate than domestic ones. And while international strategies have extolled the virtues of internationalisation in its broadest sense and international diversity, UK universities have, until more recently, largely ignored students from continental Europe. While millions have been spent securing students from outside of Europe, much less effort and money has been directed at the recruitment of students from continental Europe. Why should we spend money recruiting an Italian when we can fill our quota from within the UK and with much less effort? Or so the argument went.
“Why should we spend money recruiting an Italian when we can fill our quota from within the UK and with much less effort? Or so the argument went”
Driven by the lifting of the student number control (or MASN – Maximum Aggregate Student Number) and recognition that the recruitment of students from outside of the EU was getting harder, international recruitment offices have expanded in recent years to cover Europe and more dedicated recruitment activities have started to take place across continental Europe. Ignored for years as a significant recruitment market, the British Council, who had been running education exhibitions in Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong for more than two decades, started developing, in response to demand from universities, education exhibitions in Italy, Spain, Germany and elsewhere on the continent.
The results have been striking – while student intake from India fell by almost 10% last year, students from France were up by more than 2%, Italy by more than 7% and the Netherlands by more than 10%. Not everywhere in Europe has seen growth, but against a background of weakened economies and shrinking youth populations, the growth that has taken place is a real success and a testament to the hard work and dedication of a new, albeit small, army of Europe focussed international recruiters. Europeans don’t quite pay as much as non-Europeans but the cost of recruiting and supporting them – with no visa and immigration compliance to worry about – is significantly less than for non-Europeans. The lifting of the cap has inadvertently made international strategies more real – at least when it comes to student diversity.
“Against a background of weakened economies and shrinking youth populations, the growth that has taken place is testament to the hard work and dedication of a new, albeit small, army of Europe focussed international recruiters”
But would a so-called Brexit end all of that? I don’t think so. We’ve now seen the benefits of having a wider diversity of student population and I think we’ll continue to want that. The fact that European undergraduates will no longer be eligible for student support won’t put all of them off. If my own university is anything to go by, then nearly hald of continental European undergraduates pay their fees upfront without any reliance on UK student loans. And of course our postgraduate students also mostly pay tuition fees upfront and without any recourse to UK financial aid. If we get our pricing strategies right and maintain our quality and reputations, European students will continue to come.
Where I am worried about the impact of Brexit is in the staffing of our universities. Increasingly we rely on high quality international staff and in some subject areas, such as business, economics and the sciences, European staff even dominate. Again in my own university, staff from Germany, Italy and Greece outnumber all nationalities other than the British.
Yes, our universities would be weakened in all sorts of ways if we had fewer European students, but the quality of our faculty, research output and international standing might be devastated.