Applications to UK universities have increased for the first time in three years. Overall, there were just under 2 400 more applications made before the January 2019 deadline than the same deadline the year before, representing an increase of 0.4%. The uptick is so modest because of applications actually falling across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, with a spike in international applications exceeding and concealing the domestic slump.
The figures were released by UCAS – the organisation responsible for the universities admissions process – and reveal that the main bulk of the 5.5% increase in international applications from 2018-19 came from outside the EU. While EU applications have increased by a mere 380 since last year, non-EU applications grew by over 5 000 in the same time period.
The news may come as a surprise to those who follow current affairs, seeing as the decision to leave the European Union – taken in mid-2016 – and subsequent preparations for Brexit arguably created and continue to create immense uncertainty over the UK’s future relationship with the wider international community in several spheres, including education. Brexit has also cast doubt over universities’ funding, some of which comes from the EU. Indeed, in 2017 – the first year when would-be international applicants were able to take all of this into account – EU applications fell by over 3 000.
However, it would seem that now the mindset overseas has changed: where once international students saw Brexit as an obstacle, they now see its unintended consequences as an opportunity to be taken advantage of. Nick Hillman, who heads up the Higher Education Policy Institute (a think tank), points to “the value of the pound. If you are sitting in Delhi or Beijing and thinking ‘where do I want to study?’ the value of the pound really matters as it makes our courses seem much cheaper”. This is in reference to the pound’s post-referendum slump, which is currently faring worse against the US dollar, Euro and Chinese Yuan than on the day we voted to leave the EU (meaning that UK prices – including tuition fees – are now lower for Americans, Chinese and those using the Euro than they were on 23rd June 2016).
There is also some consensus that the quality of UK universities has caused the surge in international applications; while Brexit could make UK universities less accessible to those living outside its borders, this would only increase interest if what British universities were offering was of a high standard. While EU applications across the UK grew by a measly 0.9%, Warwick University saw theirs inflate by an entire 10%. “Paradoxically, Brexit has focused people’s attention on the strength of British universities,” said Seán Hand, deputy pro-vice-chancellor for Europe at Warwick. “European students appreciate that universities such as Warwick, with strong international connections in research and teaching, would be a place for the best kind of education”.