The United Kingdom government should consider offering scholarships for talented students from the European Union who find themselves priced out of studying at universities in the UK since Brexit, according to the higher education and science lead for the EU region at the British Council.
Helen Etheridge, who took on the role of helping to steer UK higher education through the choppy post-Brexit waters at the end of last year, told University World News: “We are very keen to explore with government expanding the UK’s scholarship scheme for international students now there is parity of fees for EU and other international students.
“We already offer GREAT scholarships from UK universities, jointly funded by the UK government and the British Council, to students from 18 countries in South and East Asia and North Africa and now also the Americas.
“But there is nothing at the moment for European students and we would like to have a scholarship scheme that includes EU countries and target those scholarships at students really in need.”
She pointed to the recent widening of financial support in the UK for international students, including ‘welcome’ scholarships for Afghanistan scholars and refugees and some universities like Oxford introducing their own scholarships for Ukrainian students fleeing the Russian invasion.
“The British Council is also doing what it can to provide English-language lessons for refugees in Poland to help their employability,” Etheridge said.
Brexit has created a whole new set of challenges for talented but less affluent students, particularly from poorer EU countries in Central and South-eastern Europe and for working-class students throughout the continent.
Etheridge is one of many voicing fears that EU student recruitment to UK universities is becoming a luxury that is out of reach for many European students since they can no longer access UK student loans and tuition fees are now on a par with those charged to international students from the rest of the world.
Ending free movement of people between the EU and UK as part of the final Brexit withdrawal deal added a further twist – and while poorer students say they can’t afford the tuition fees, their richer cousins are put off by the need to navigate the hurdles to obtain visas to study in the UK.
The impact is already being felt, with a 56% plunge in EU students placed on undergraduate courses in the UK by last year (accepted EU applicants fell from 22,430 in 2020 to just 9,820 by mid-August 2021), as reported by University World News.
This year the decline has continued, with UCAS data for 26 January 2022 showing 4,920 fewer applicants from EU countries, which represents a decline of 19% on the comparative figure for 2021.
The biggest drops have been in the price-sensitive countries of Central and Eastern Europe, like Bulgaria where there was a 72% decline and 1,350 fewer applicants in 2021.
To gauge future trends, Etheridge told University World News the British Council has expanded what it used to call its “Brexit temperature check” – surveys among prospective EU students looking for a degree taught in English.
Spain and Italy have been added to the countries surveyed, while temperature checks are once again being carried out by the British Council in France, Germany, Poland and Greece. The results are due out in a report later this summer.
Etheridge said: “There’s still plenty of interest in studying in the UK and we’re the number one choice for Greek students, but the UK is behind the US among Italian students looking to study abroad. Italians are also looking at Spain as an alternative, and while the UK remains very popular among Polish students, many are also looking at studying in Germany, which is next door and a cheaper option.
“Cost is now a real barrier for many EU students and universities are telling us that they are losing out on some of the most talented students from countries like Bulgaria, from where some of the best students used to come to the UK to study.”
Interest in UK cooling
The British Council is not alone in noticing the temperature cooling in terms of interest from European students in studying in the UK.
Studyportals, which operates platforms to help tens of thousands of international students compare options for going overseas for a university education taught in English, reports growing competition for a bigger slice of the study abroad market from EU countries, particularly the Netherlands and Germany.
Studyportals spokeswoman Cara Skikne told University World News: “Prior to Brexit, the UK captured about one in seven student searches from the European Economic Area (EEA), but by May 2022, that number had fallen to one in 13.
“We saw interest among EEA students diversify towards other countries, including the US and Canada, last year. However, interest among European students is now consolidating again within the EEA region.
“The drop in interest in studying at British universities from price-sensitive markets has been greater, so we can assume that the loss of home fee status and restricted access to funding in the UK have had an impact. We can also assume that scholarships would make more of a difference there.”
Ruth Arnold, senior advisor with Study Group and an expert in global higher education, welcomed the idea of expanding scholarships “to help outstanding but financially disadvantaged students from countries such as Greece and Bulgaria to pursue their academic potential in the UK”.
But she wondered why the British Council and UK government should make any distinctions about helping talent blossom through outreach work and scholarships based on where the students were from.
Arnold told University World News: “British universities have long benefitted from being truly diverse internationally and it would be tragic if our exit from the European Union meant students had less direct experience of an academic community which includes our nearest neighbours.
“This kind of initiative could make a positive difference not only for individual students but for their UK peers who study alongside them.
“But I also think we should look beyond nationality and simply see the potential of a young person to succeed and make a difference.
“The Australian government’s Destination Scholarships for international students, hosted in Australia, include undergraduate, masters and PhD scholarships and the eligibility is simply ‘all countries’.
“I think there is a lot to be said for that approach and the British Council with its global presence is uniquely placed to make a difference,” said Arnold.
Focus on Greece
Etheridge, who worked for both the UK government’s Department for International Trade and the Department for Education before joining the British Council, told University World News there was growing higher education interest in “institutional collaboration, supported by a bilateral strategic framework” between the UK and Greece.
“This could be one of the ways forward post-Brexit and we are working with UK universities and their partners, not just in Greece, but around Southeast Europe in countries such as Romania, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Malta to create greater awareness of UK transnational education, or TNE, so students can understand the option of studying for a UK qualification without leaving the region.
“The British Council has provided a lot of support to both sides in forging greater collaboration between the UK and Greek higher education sectors and we’ve had engagement from the entire Greek university system. Around 40 UK universities are involved, with some signing memoranda of understanding agreements,” Etheridge said.
Dr Vangelis Tsiligiris, an associate professor with the Business School at Nottingham Trent University in the UK and the person behind the launch of the TNE Hub in 2016 as an international network of researchers and practitioners involved in transnational education, told University World News there are already several scholarship initiatives in Greece supporting study abroad, but he suggested that “a UK-driven programme aimed at postgraduate and PhD study would be a very effective way to attract talent in UK universities, particularly in the context of Brexit”.
“Historically the UK has been a destination for Greeks who want to continue graduate and research study. This is changing now, with other countries emerging as study destinations, the Netherlands and Germany being the prime ones for Greeks.
“So, establishing a UK scholarship scheme would provide a pathway to study and probably work in the UK.
“As for undergraduate education, this is free in Greece at public higher education institutions, and also accessible locally via TNE at a relatively low cost compared to studying abroad.
“A scholarship scheme for undergraduates could be useful but probably not as effective as ‘value for money’ and generating impact by supporting an expansion of high-quality provision through TNE inside Greece,” said Tsiligiris.
Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. Follow @DelaCour_comms on Twitter. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.