Are European universities about to take a bite out of UK student recruitment?

Published on: Author: Mark Murphy Leave a comment


By Sarah St. John– In the news this month, we read of UCAS opening up to European universities so that students can also apply overseas via the online system alongside their UK applications. This news will have pulled opinions in two directions, with some fearing a brain drain as students are attracted to the lower tuition fees offered by competing European institutions, while others believing that the offer of European universities through UCAS will not affect the UK’s higher education recruitment.

As UCAS suggests, the nature of higher education is increasingly more globalised (The Guardian, 17.02.2015). We can say that student mobility from the UK has been lagging behind mobility into the UK from Europe, not to mention the international arena, and this is perhaps the first time we have seen concrete measures to promote the mobility of UK students onto the continent. It is difficult to pinpoint the reason why UK students have been less inclined to seek educational opportunities abroad, perhaps a lack of open-mindedness or the UK’s poor reputation as speakers of second languages proven right, but as UK tuition fees have recently seen a marked increase to £9k, are students considering their options more carefully? European universities are certainly dangling the bait as they increase their academic offerings entirely in English. Admittedly, this was primarily to compete for a share of the international students flocking to the UK, but they may soon find themselves competing for UK students too.

We should, however, consider that the decrease in student numbers following the introduction of higher fees was less prominent than anticipated and UK students do not seem to be quite as fazed by them as we imagined. Nevertheless, students give the impression that they are getting savvier by the day, especially when it comes to value for money and it would not come as a surprise if the more courageous find their way abroad for a better deal. With this in mind, perhaps the Labour Party have a point when they propose a reduction in tuition fees, which would make them more competitive and keep these students in British institutions – but let’s not open that can of worms.

On the other hand, of course, we can question whether greater ease of accessibility to European programmes will actually have any impact at all on UK student numbers. There is much more to studying abroad than meets the eye; moving to another country for three years, increased distance from home, a different culture, a different language in everyday living and bureaucracy may all deter a UK student. They may also question how a European qualification will really be seen on the UK labour market upon their return, despite a right for it to be considered equally to a UK qualification according to European agreements on the recognition of diplomas. This would be a shame because a qualification from a European university is likely to bring with it further qualities than the traditional transferable skills that are so keenly sought after by employers.  The fact of the matter is that in the eyes of the average UK student, it takes a great deal of courage to follow a programme abroad, so this will be weighed up against the prospect of forking out £9k and it wouldn’t come as a surprise if nine times out of ten, paying the £9k (initially covered by the government anyway) wins.

If more UK students were prepared to study at European institutions, the European Higher Education Area would be likely to see a more balanced flow of student mobility as well as the fact that there are some true benefits for the UK student to studying in Europe, such as increased open-mindedness and a richer toolbox of skills and qualities for the job market. Nevertheless, at this point, it would seem premature for the UK to fear a brain drain to Europe despite the increase in tuition fees. It should, however, remember that students will continue to shop around, which should keep the UK on its toes.

Image courtesy of xedos4 at

Short Biography: Sarah St. John holds a BA and MA from the University of Kent and is currently studying for a Ph.D. in Education from the University of Glasgow, for which her research focuses on the development of European Union Higher Education Policy during early European integration, specifically 1945-1976. While studying for her Ph.D. on a part-time basis, she also currently holds a position in administration at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. Previously, she was student recruitment officer at the University of Kent.


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