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The Brexit Effect on Higher Education

According to new figures released from the UK’s Universities and College Application Service (UCAS), the number of people from Ireland applying to study at British universities has decreased for the fifth consecutive year.  A notable 31% fewer Irish applicants hoped to study at UK third-level institutions in 2017 than in 2012. UCAS January deadline figures for the 2018/19 academic year suggest EU applicants as a whole to the UK are down 7%. Lewis Purser, director of academic affairs at the Irish Universities Association, suggests the fall is a result of concerns arising from the implications of the UK leaving the European Union (EU), and the potential knock-on effect on higher education.

According to a Times Higher Education (THE) report, numbers have been falling steadily since 2012. Irish applicants now amount to a mere 9% of applications from the EU to third-level institutions in the UK, but once made up “more than a seventh”. The OECD has reported that the UK is behind only the US in terms of numbers of international students it receives applications from. It is far from certain whether they can retain that standing in the wake of their withdrawal from the EU, and the losses that will inevitably entail.

A survey conducted by Hobsons on prospective international students revealed 43% felt Brexit has had an effect on their eventual study destination, of which 83% say it has made them less likely to study in the UK. Popular concerns included the increasing prevalence of anti-immigrant sentiment within the UK, the deflation of the British pound, and doubt over research opportunities in the future. A report from the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) in May 2017 revealed that 66% of Irish academics believe Brexit will have a negative impact on higher education in Ireland, increasing to 96% when answering the same question in relation to Northern Ireland. Uncertainty surrounding visa restrictions and the lack of guaranteed access to EU funding for research were cited as major concerns for both academics and researchers. Indeed, THE recently released reports stating almost 2,350 academics from EU countries have resigned from positions in UK universities in the past year alone. There is a lack of clarity on whether the UK will remain in EU research programmes post-Brexit, which has lead to a hesitance to progress with collaborative research between the UK and their EU neighbours, according to the Higher Education Authority (HEA). An Oxford study in 2017 indicated the UK received over 15% of EU Framework Programmes awards, as well as 20% of all European Research Council awards. It is approximated that British universities receive between 2.5 and 3 percent of their total annual income from EU research budgets. In fact, the author of the study suggested the UK has been awarded more revenue from EU research funds than would seem merited, with regard to the country’s contribution to the EU’s overall budget.

Another integral aspect of higher education in the EU, the popularity of which cannot be ignored, is the Erasmus+ programme, which provides 4 million Europeans with the chance to study and train abroad. The programme as it stands does not require membership of the EU, but given that Switzerland is currently disallowed from participation in the programme due to its restrictive policies on the free movement of people, if the UK as predicted decides upon a similar position, its place in the Erasmus programme will be at risk. EU officials have always been clear that the ultimate aim of the initiative is not just educational, but to promote integration and mobility between EU countries. This year, the UK received 30,183 students from countries across the EU, while 14,801 UK students were hosted in other EU countries. As Ireland will be the largest English-speaking country remaining in the EU in just one year’s time, it is suggested this could provide Ireland with the opportunity to attract prospective international students taking part in the Erasmus programme who might otherwise have opted for universities in the UK. This would be no small windfall. According to the RIA, at current levels international students in Ireland provide a €1 billion contribution to the economy annually.

Indeed, since the referendum that revealed the UK would leave the EU, there have been significant increases in the number of EU and international student applications to third-level institutions in Ireland. The most recent Central Applications Office (CAO) figures revealed EU applicants increased by a sizeable 17% for the 2017/18 academic year, which experts have linked to uncertainty arising from Brexit.  The media has reported surges in applications from outside of Ireland in University College Cork, University College Dublin, and Trinity College Dublin. UCC saw an increase of 40% in applications from international students last year, with UCC President Patrick O’Shea crediting the “extraordinarily strong position” of Irish universities internationally. O’Shea also referenced an outpouring of UK institutions looking to discuss the possibility of dual degrees and partnerships with Irish universities, in order to benefit from the expansive EU research funding which they may soon be deprived of. O’Shea told the Irish Times: “There are huge advantages to somebody who gets a degree from a EU university as opposed to a UK university in terms of post-graduate work…So, I think they are looking at all options to avoid and mitigate a possible implosion in foreign students over there.”

A study conducted by the RIA signalled the possibilities of winning prospective researchers and students from abroad and increasing EU funding as crucial opportunities for Irish universities. Respondents cited prerequisites to availing of these opportunities as improving international language classes in Irish third level institutions and promoting Irish universities more effectively abroad. Indeed, if Ireland’s higher education institutions are to attract a larger proportion of EU and international students, we must first take a serious look at our infrastructural obstacles. First, our diminished resources of housing must be replenished. The lack of affordable housing in Ireland curtails our attractiveness as a premier destination for higher education, as well as for inward investment and highly skilled migrants, and is the cause of the nation’s spiralling rates of homelessness. Secondly, if Ireland wants to take advantage of potential opportunities arising from the UK’s retraction from the EU, an unavoidable precursor will be investing in higher level education. It will be necessary to increase funding of our universities, recent budgetary reductions of which have lead to drops in international and EU rankings of late. If our third level institutions want to compete on an international level and cope with the resulting increased student intake, they will need the accompanying resources.

However, heightened interest in Ireland as a destination for higher education could come at a cost for domestic students, with representatives of Ireland’s major universities expressing concerns that CAO points could see significant increases as a result, leading to the possible exclusion of Irish students from the market. Likewise, there will be increased demand for third-level education in Ireland from prospective Irish students too, if international fees become mandatory for them at UK universities. This year, rates of Irish students hoping to study in UK universities dropped sharply, decreasing by almost 20%.

Presently, any student in the EU can study in a university in another EU country and pay the same rate of tuition as applied to nationals of that country. International or non-EU fees, however, usually range from €18,000 to €23,000, soaring to €45,000 to €52,000 for certain clinical programmes like medicine. Moreover, the UK Parliament last year passed legislation permitting their universities to raise undergraduate fees yearly until 2020.

It has been agreed that, for the next academic year (set to begin in September 2018), EU students who wish to enrol in higher education institutions across the UK will pay current EU tuition fees and remain eligible for financial assistance for the duration of their degree, just the same as British students. Meanwhile, the Scottish government has gone further and promised to maintain tuition fees for EU students at current levels at least until the 2019/20 academic year, the year the UK is set to officially withdraw from the EU. What will happen to students from the EU hoping to study in UK universities after this date is uncertain. The Irish Times reported that Department of Education officials have asserted their “concern” over the possibility of losing the present level of student mobility between Ireland and Britain.

The Department has stated it cannot conduct isolated bilateral agreements with the UK government to negotiate an arrangement specific to prospective Irish and British third-level students. The issue of tuition fees will have to be settled on an EU level, with all 28 states participating and bound by the ultimate agreement.

When the UK finally puts its money where its mouth is and officially withdraws from the EU in March 2019, even the experts aren’t quite sure what it will mean for higher education, but one thing is for certain: the consequences will be severe, immediate, and far-reaching.  Education, always well supported fiscally and otherwise by the EU, will take the brunt of the fallout. How hard a blow the UK’s higher education institutions will take, and whether they will recover from that loss and retain their position as global leaders in education, or whether Irish universities will take advantage of this rare opportunity and successfully divert Britain’s steady stream of international students inward, only time will tell.