As Brexit looms, UK universities see surprise growth in EU student applications
LONDON, UK - JANUARY 15, 2019: Brexit suporters, brexiteers, in central London holding banners campaigning to leave the European Union. Source: Shutterstock

In January this year, five UK higher education groups warned of the risk to university research, staff and students if the government fails to negotiate a deal ahead of Brexit.

In an open letter to MPs, Universities UK, the Russell Group, Guild HE, Million Plus and University Alliance – representatives of more than 150 higher educaucation institutes (HEIs) across the UK – called a no-deal exit from the European Union “one of the biggest threats our universities have ever faced.”

Concerned for the implications on university research, as well as the impact on travel and security for EU students and staff currently in the country, one British think tank predicted that EU student numbers could fall by more than 50 percent should this be the case.

But in terms of student enrolments, the post-Brexit picture may not be so grim.

Westminster, London, UK. January 17 2019. A pro Brexit protestor – for the UK ‘crashing out’ of the European Union without a deal – holding a banner stating ‘Leave Then Negotiate’. Source: Shutterstock

Last month, a UCAS analysis of applications for full-time undergraduate programmes revealed that UK university enrolments have soared by more than 2,500 from this time in 2018, the first growth in the three years since the Brexit vote.

A total of 561,420 students have applied to start their course this year, with HEIs receiving a record number of applicants from outside the EU. A total 63,690 non-EU applicants have sought higher education in the UK, an increase of nine percent.

Despite the concerns of industry experts and educators alike, the number of EU applicants has also grown by one percent this year.

“In this time of uncertainty, it’s welcome news to see more EU and international students wanting to come and study in the UK,” said Clare Merchant, Chief Executive of UCAS – the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.

Statistics have shown that the number of international students heading to the UK to study is steadily rising year after year, with interest particularly growing among outbound international students from Italy.

According to Study in UK, as of the 2017/18 academic year, the number of Italian students enrolled at UK universities reached 13,985, topping the list as the largest group of EU students studying in the country.

In 2013/14, the nation’s higher education providers taught 9,550 Italian students, with Italy ranked as the sixth-biggest country of origin for EU students in the country, increasing by 4,435 in four years.

Anti-Brexit supporters hold placards and flags as they demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament on January 14, 2019. Source: Tolga AKMEN/AFP

As such, Italian learners in the UK saw the highest rate of growth compared to students from other EU nations. They now stand at the top of the list as the largest group of EU students at UK universities, surpassing traditional leaders such as France and Germany.

Most of these students chose to attend an English university: 82.3 percent (11,505) of the total 13,985 Italian students studied in England; 14.8 percent (2,070) opted for Scotland; 2.6 percent (365) chose Wales; and 0.3 percent (45) favoured Northern Ireland.

According to recent immigration data, Italy is in the midst of a major “brain drain”, with more than half a million natives moving to other European countries in the last five years. With huge unemployment rates causing young people to seek better prospects elsewhere, higher education opportunities across the EU and North America in particular are a major draw.

But with the March 29 Brexit deadline closing in, and a no-deal Brexit categorically rejected by UK parliament mere days ago, the true impact of Brexit on UK higher education remains to be seen.

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