The number of EU students enrolling in British universities has more than halved since Brexit – with sharp declines in scholars from Italy, Germany and France, figures reveal.
Brexit is seen as the primary deterrent, with home fees and student finance no longer available to EU students who do not already live in the UK with settled or pre-settled status.
“The significant decrease shown in EU first-year student enrolments can be attributed to changes in fees eligibility,” said the Higher Education Statistics Agency, which has published the data for the first full post-Brexit year.
Before Brexit, students paid home fees of just over £9,000 and had student finance available. Fees have risen as high as £38,000 after Brexit.
The number of students from the EU who enrolled for the first year of an undergraduate or postgraduate course was down from 66,680 the year before Brexit came into force, 2020, to 31,000 in 2021. This was the first year EU students were treated the same as those coming from China or India.
But the impact of Brexit is deepest at undergraduate level, with just 13,155 EU students enrolling in 2021 for the first year of a primary degree compared with 37,530 the year before, according to official data.
Universities say the loss of undergraduates removes diversity from the classroom and weakens the finances of colleges who could rely on EU students being in college for three or four-year courses – unlike many of the new international students who are coming for one-year postgraduate courses.
The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) figures shows that overall there are still 120,000 EU students in the system, down from 152,000 in 2020-21. This includes students who enrolled before Brexit and are completing their courses.
The loss of students at postgraduate level is a significant blow as it acted as a pipeline to the science sector, with students a vital part of Horizon and other cutting-edge developments in fields such as medical research and astronomy.
HESA data shows the number of postgraduate students from the EU went down to 14,000 from 24,000 in 2017-18 and the number of research students halving to 2,260 from 4,650 over the same period.
HESA data also shows the biggest exodus of students post-Brexit as being from Italy, Germany and France.
Ireland had replaced France as the No 1 source of EU students, said HESA, with just under 10,000 students enrolled in the UK in 2021-22, similar to the numbers in 2017-18. More than 2,000 of those are enrolled in Northern Ireland universities.
The number of Chinese students has risen from 107,000 in 2017-2018 to 151,000 last year.
Universities UK said the increase in students from outside the EU had not offset the exodus of EU students, weakening financial stability in third-level education and reducing diversity across all subject areas. “The decline in postgraduate taught and postgraduate research student numbers as the students transition to international fees is a cause for concern in terms of the pipeline of research talent for the UK.”
The figures show “very clearly the impact of the sort of loss of freedom of movement and the change in European students fee status, but also, and critically for undergraduates, the loss of access to student loans”, said Charley Robinson, the head of global mobility policy at Universities UK.
The Universities and Colleges Admissions Services (Ucas), which has more up-to-date data based on course applications, suggests the decline in EU students will continue, with EU resident applications for undergraduate courses in 2022-23 at 24,000 compared with 53,000 in 2016.
By the time EU students had considered their options and made their choice, this number dropped considerably, with just 11,300 taking up places in the UK, many of those likely to be from Ireland.
Before Brexit, EU students across the bloc paid whatever domestic students paid, which in the UK’s case was just over £9,250 a year. They must now pay fees paid by non-EU students, which, according to Study UK and the British Council, can vary from £11,400 to £38,000 a year.
Brexit also excludes EU students from student loans with new immigration rules requiring non-Irish European students to obtain visas and proof that they can support themselves with access to £1,334 a month for courses in London and £1,024 a month for courses outside London.
A Department for Education spokesperson said a drop in the numbers of EU students was “expected … due to a range of factors” including Brexit.
“EU students remain an important part of our international education strategy ambition of hosting at least 600,000 students a year and generating £35bn in exports for the UK economy, both by 2030,” they added.