Will Britain Lose Its Place as the Second Most Popular Study Destination?

Country Has Brexit influenced your decision about where to study?     As a result of Brexit, are you:
Yes No More likely to study in the UK Less likely to study in the UK No change
Hungary 70% 30% 0% 70% 30%
Poland 43% 57% 14% 72% 14%
Lithuania 22% 78% 11% 11% 78%
Bulgaria 56% 44% 0% 100% 0%

As part of the latest QS report, Is Brexit Turning International Students Away from the UK?, we reached out to students in Eastern Europe, to provide some additional data and an enhanced overview of student attitudes towards Brexit in this region. This data does not appear in our report and will be analyzed here for the first time, as an insightful supplement to our broader research findings.

The table above reflects student attitudes from Hungary, Poland, Lithuania and Bulgaria, towards study in the UK in a post-Brexit environment.

EU Benefits erased

The UK has some of the most highly ranked universities in the world. If they become less accessible to prospective students from the EU due to rising fees and visa restrictions, they run a risk of being cut off from a system that has benefited them for decades. European students are therefore one group that will conceivably suffer from Britain’s decision to exit the EU.

This sense of loss was conveyed by Gertrude, in Bulgaria: “The EU is a community created to help the people and also to offer better education and possibility for us, the students, to study abroad. By leaving the EU, UK takes away this opportunity from us and makes us think more negatively about studying there.” Such a view exposes how Brexit has hit some students on a personal level, who feel aggrieved that they are suddenly unable to access the freedom and advantages of generations preceding them.

For many, money was a dominant issue. Despite not knowing yet how and if, indeed, fees will go up, many students were dissuaded from study in the UK for this reason. As prospective undergraduate student Halina, in Poland, told us: “I decided not to study in the UK as I was a bit apprehensive and simply scared of fees rapidly growing as a result of the Brexit.”

Key highlights

The table above shows the impact Brexit has had on the decision making of prospective students from Hungary, Poland, Lithuania and Bulgaria. The only country which appeared mostly unaffected in this survey, was Lithuania, who claimed with the highest percentage that Brexit will have little influence on their decision about where to study.

It was not unusual to find students who were unfazed by the EU referendum result in our report, either. Some students were still determined to access what they saw as an unparalleled quality of education. Others saw it as a window of opportunity to take advantage of the weakened pound, enabling them to enter the British HE system for a reduced price. There were some, even, who saw Brexit as a potential booster to their own economies, if the banks relocated in their favour. This view is unlikely to be found in Eastern Europe, as the banks are more likely to shift to Western Europe, with Paris and Frankfurt cited as key destinations.

In contrast to these positive views, 100% of Bulgarian participants surveyed asserted they were less likely to study in the UK as a result of the UK deciding to leave the EU. Hungary and Poland similarly suggest a strong negative reaction to Brexit, with the majority stating they were less likely to study in the UK.

Among these negative reactions were statements like this:

I do believe that we need unity among every nation and country on this earth, we need to support each other, and the UK turned its back on this idea with Brexit. Plus, the Brexit leave campaign was based on lies, used the people’s fear of other cultures, their xenophobia and made empty promises,” said Ola, in Hungary.

This view is consistent with a perception in our report that Britain is no longer a liberal, progressive country but is, in fact, transgressing. Many students felt Britain had broken away from the principals on which the EU was founded, and in doing so, was attempting to isolate itself from them. They saw this self-isolation as a clearly defined message in itself and their reaction was simple; if you don’t want me, I don’t want you either.

The economic impact

Research conducted by the OECD shows that the UK attracts more international students than any other country outside of the US. Interestingly, Chinese students account for the highest percentage, but Western Europe is responsible for a great number of these students, with students from Spain, Germany, France and Italy making up a large proportion. Bulgaria is in the top 20, with a student population of approximately 6,255. Given 100% of Bulgarian participants surveyed indicated they were less likely to study in the UK, this figure may change dramatically.

International students account for a large portion of the UK’s student population. Some of the latest figures show they make up 19%, totaling in at a considerable 437,000. The economic impact of international students should also not be underestimated. A report conducted in 2015 by Universities UK show international students are responsible for £10.8 billion of UK export earnings. Moreover, spending by international students and their visitors generated a further £25.8 billion in gross output.

This picture could be vastly altered, however, if the claims in our table above hold true. Just what will a post-Brexit economy and student population look like? The answer is yet to be determined.

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