Brexit plus coronavirus could spell disaster for Britain’s universities

Getty Images / Kieran Walsh

With the dawn of 2020 came one of the biggest questions UK universities has ever faced: what will their campuses look like after Brexit? Universities have long been proudly European in their approach: more than 143,000 EU students from outside the UK are enrolled in British institutions, and EU citizens make up 18 per centof academic staff. But the new post-Brexit immigration rules might change that forever.
No longer classed as “home” students, EU applicants will soon join other internationals in requiring separate visas for work and study. Where once EU citizens were charged the same fees and had the same access to student loans and scholarships as their British classmates, their fees will be required upfront. And with their new international status, those fees are no small change: starting from the 2021-22 academic year, EU students enrolling at English universities will likely be charged tuition fees of up to £26,000 annuallyfor an undergraduate degree. On July 9, Scotland confirmed it would follow England in charging EU students international fees; announcements from Wales and Northern Ireland are expected over the coming weeks.

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At £9,250 per year for home students, the cost of studying in most of the UK is already high when compared to the rest of Europe. Tuition fees in France are a snip in comparison at €2,770 (£2,400) per year, and several countries – including Germany, Denmark and Norway – charge no fees at all. It raises the question: can universities still rely on EU students wanting to come to the UK at all?
Announcing the changes on 23 June, universities minister Michelle Donelan said she was “confident” about the UK’s ability to continue to attract European students, staff and researchers in spite of the changes. It’s a statement that Anne Marie Graham, chief executive of the UK Council for International Affairs, agrees with to an extent.“The UK will remain attractive to EU students because of its very highly respected education system,” she says. “We will not go from having several thousand EU students to zero, but it’s inevitable that numbers will fall because the issue is two-fold.”
“They’re going from paying home fees to triple that amount, and they’re going from having the right to work and live freely in the UK to no freedom of movement. It’s true that some EU students will make the investment, because the UK still has a very highly respected education system – but there will certainly be more hurdles to overcome.”
Inevitably, the hurdles will be bigger for the poorest applicants. At a time when universities are under increasing pressure to widen access to underprivileged students, a fees policy which favours the wealthiest EU families may seem regressive.

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“Ending access to student loans and home fees will simply close the opportunity for people like me to study in the UK,” says Alexandra Bulat, project manager for European citizens’ rights group the3million. Originally from Romania herself, Bulat relied on tuition fee loans and the ability to work several part-time jobs in order to fund her studies in the UK, which is why she finds the loss in home status “disappointing”.
“None of my EU friends – who are now doctors, lawyers and accountants, amongst other professions – had families, friends or their own savings that could pay tens of thousands of pounds a year upfront,” Bulat says.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute think tank, says it would have been both “legally and morally difficult to charge, say, poorer students from Asia and Africa more than students from the EU now that we are no longer in the EU and once the transition period ends”. That said, he was “surprised by the timing of the announcement on EU fees. While it does give universities certainty about [the academic year] 2021/2022 and might even encourage some students to enrol this year rather than waiting, it seems a little premature to me, given the ongoing state of the wider UK-EU conversations,” he says.
According to Smita Jamdar, head of education at the law firm Shakespeare Martineau, post-Brexit universities would be vulnerable to legal claims if they treated EU citizens differently from other international students: to implement different rules based on nationality risks a clear case for discrimination. But there may be more leeway for rules based on residency. That doesn’t necessarily tie them to charging higher fees, she suggests: “the way I see it, individual universities could make a case for wanting to maintain their European connections. Then there’s the case for environmental sustainability – an English institution could try to justify incentivising applications from people resident in the EU rather than India, for example, because they want to reduce the impact on air travel.”

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This shift is taking place at a time when universities already face daunting financial challenges. For years, the sector has complained of crippling debt caused by years of underfunding. With the Covid-19 pandemic throwing the global economy into crisis, these concerns are growing by the day. Criticisms over the UK’s response to the virus combined with closed borders and travel restrictions mean prospective EU and international students could be put off from applying altogether.
According to Malcolm Butler, director of Global Engagement at the University of Sheffield, the outlook for recruitment seems positive so far: “We have seen a similar number of high quality applications to the university this year from EU applicants,” he says. “So despite the uncertainty around Covid-19 and the impact of Brexit we know that students are still looking forward to the opportunity to study at Sheffield.”
“However,” Butler says, “we, along with all UK universities, do share concerns about the future impact Brexit will have on EU students who want to study in the UK.”
Quacquarelli Symonds, a company providing analytics about higher education, found in a May 2020 survey that 62 per cent of international students interested in studying in the UK have had their plans disrupted by the pandemic. An analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies this month suggests the sector could lose up to £4.3 billion in one year from lost international student fees alone. It warns that as many as 13 universities risk going bust in the coming months, barring a government bailout.
While the IFS report declines to say which universities are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, it is likely that those most at risk are mid-tier institutions – those with a modest research output but win fewer funding grants than elite institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge. For decades, these universities have concentrated their efforts towards recruiting international students to make up the gap in income.
According to Lindsay Paterson, a professor in education policy at the University of Edinburgh, banking on international students to prop up university finances in this way was always an “unsustainable fantasy.”
“It’s analogous to the sub-prime mortgages that led us to the 2008 crash,” he says, warning that the university finance bubble is about to burst.
The situation in Scotland is particularly precarious: since 2008, only English, Welsh and Northern Irish students have paid home fees at Scottish universities – tuition for Scottish and EU citizens can study free of charge. Meanwhile, one sixth of all Scottish institutions’ income comes from international student fees, equivalent to more than twice the core funding for research that universities receive from the Scottish government. “The risk of financial collapse was always there, but Covid has brought it on very sharply without warning,” Paterson warns.
If the international student population does fall as predicted, universities like Edinburgh – which has more than 8,100 fee-paying international students on its books – could soon reach a crisis point. It’s one of many reasons why Paterson believes that the decision to introduce fees for EU students in Scotland had long been on the cards. “When the fees were abolished for Scottish students, the Scottish government tried to find ways of not having to give free places to EU students but they couldn’t, because the law stated that EU students must be treated the same as home students,” he explains.
Nonetheless, when the Scottish government announced the changes, it was “a sad day for Scotland,” says Anton Muscatelli, principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Glasgow. “[It is] an unavoidable consequence of Brexit, and one of the many ways in which the decision to leave the European Union will leave us diminished,” he says. “Students from across Europe enhance our campuses and our country socially, culturally and economically.”
Earlier this year, Universities Scotland estimated that an additional £425 million was needed each year for Scottish institutions to avoid bankruptcy. With this in mind, it’s easy to see how charging EU students the same as internationals makes sense financially, as well as legally. But even if the same number of EU students were to continue to come to Scotland – and start paying higher tuition fees – only one fifth of the total university deficit will be covered. “There’s an astronomical deficit black hole faced by many universities, except those like Oxbridge who have lots of historical legacy investments,” says Paterson. “Pumping EU students for more money isn’t going to solve the broader systemic problem.”
The result of the double whammy of Covid-19 and Brexit is a poor prognosis for university finances over the coming months, and a turbulent forecast for the sector’s reputation going forward. But where there are challenges, there are also opportunities, says Paterson. “With some imagination we can use this economic crisis as a way of reconfiguring the relationship between our universities and the rest of the world.”
One potential solution could be a means-tested approach to fees – not just for home students, but as a way of attracting the best international talent beyond the limited token scholarships already in place. “This is the kind of moment at which we should be forced to think beyond the structures of provision we have taken for granted,” Paterson says. “If we had a bold enough set of left-wing thinkers, they might suggest we may have to start charging heavily means-tested fees based on family income.” That would be applied regardless of the student’s nationality, and could be framed as a means of “widening access and ensuring a diverse student population.”
It’s a sentiment Bulat agrees with. “I would like to see a fairer university system based on merit and potential, not determined by wealth,” she says. “Universities like to have discussions about ‘diversity’ and ‘multicultural’ campuses. For me, diversity is not only about the country in which you are born or whether you fit the ‘international’ tick box or not. Having students with different socio-economic backgrounds is equally, if not more, important.”
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