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Brexit leaves EU students wary of UK universities

EU applications for British universities have slumped 7 percent following the country's decision to leave the EU, breaking 10 years of growth. They are expected to be down 57 percent in the aftermath of Brexit.

When Zoe Matt-Williams heard the news last year that the UK had voted to leave the European Union, she had a sinking feeling in her stomach. The 16-year old is not British, nor has she ever lived in the UK. She is a high school student in Germany, currently finishing her final year at the John F Kennedy School in Berlin. But the Brexit vote is having a big impact on her life, because she has been preparing to attend university in the UK as a German citizen.

"I didn't think Brexit would happen,” recalls Zoe, a dual American and German citizen. "I wanted to study there because it's both English-speaking and European. But suddenly, nobody knew what was going to happen next. I didn't know if I could study there any more.”

Großbritannien University of Cambridge Samstag Abend In der Universitätsstadt Cambridge (imago/blickwinkel/McPhoto/O. Protzex)

Zoe has been conditionally accepted to the University of Cambridge for which she's been preparing for many years, with the expectation that as an EU citizen, she would have the same right to study in the UK as the British

Under EU law the UK cannot charge EU citizens a tuition rate higher than it charges its own citizens - a rate currently capped at 9,250 pounds (10,592 euros, $11,933) per year. People from outside the EU, including Americans, pay tuition rates up to 40,000 pounds. Unless an educational exchange is agreed between London and Brussels, it will be more expensive for Europeans to study in the UK. EU students will also have to obtain a visa in order to study - a visa that would require them to leave immediately after their studies are completed.

Zoe and her family didn't know what to do. "Suddenly facing the idea that we were going to possibly be forced to come up with tens of thousands of extra euros was quite a shock,” says her father Derrick Williams.

But a month ago the UK government announced that all EU students entering school this year or next will receive the UK national rate of tuition for the entirety of their studies - even after the UK leaves the bloc as expected in 2019. "Without the guarantee we would I think have been forced to reconsider her plans, and probably urged Zoe to also apply to German universities,” he says. 

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Decreasing applicants 

Zoe dodged a bullet, but what about the EU students that start after 2018? The numbers are already down. As of January, the deadline for applications to the university admissions clearing house (UCAS), applications from EU students to study in the UK had dropped by more than 7 percent since the Brexit vote - the first decrease in applications from EU students after almost a decade of unbroken growth.

The initial decline may only be the tip of the iceberg. Earlier this year the UK's Higher Education Policy Institute, a think tank, published a report predicting that harmonizing tuition fees for EU and non-EU students could reduce enrolments from EU countries by over 31,000 students a year - a 57 percent decline. This would amount to a net loss, at current tuition rates, of 40 million pounds in the first year alone.

"The picture is different for different universities,” Nick Hillman, the institute's director, told DW. "EU students from slightly poorer backgrounds will be the main ones to see their numbers go down.”

But he added that UK universities may make up the shortfall with more non-EU students. Brexit caused a dramatic fall in the value of the British pound. Assuming that exchange rate decline continues, it could increase enrolments from non-EU countries by around 20,000 students per year, according to the report. That would be an increase of 9 percent in the first year generating 227 million pounds in income. 

Are they worth it? 

Brexit supporters have argued that UK universities have such a prestigious reputation worldwide that the market will bear the tuition increase. "There will undoubtedly be some drop off, but the question is - how soft is that consumer base?” Alex Greer, research and communications officer at the think tank Open Europe, told DW. "How strong is the intrinsic value of a UK university education regardless of what the cost is? My suspicion is there is an intrinsic value to being a student in the UK [that people will pay for].”

Hillman says there is a risk of over-confidence. "There's a fine line between being proud of our university system and being too arrogant,” he says. "It's certainly true that we have a very good university sector, but there is a lively market out there. Some German and Dutch universities teach very well in English right now.”

Großbritannien Premierministerin Theresa May in Halifax (picture-alliance/dpa/D. Lawson)

British Prime Minister Theresa May has promised in her election manifesto to make it harder for students to obtain visas, in order to crack down on people overstaying such visas - a message that is likely to discourage applications further

UK universities may be about to take an unrelated reputation hit as well. One week after the election, on 14 June, the government is set to publish a first-ever ranking of UK universities. It will rank them with gold, silver or bronze medals.

According to the British daily The Guardian, many of the UK's most prestigious universities are going to receive bronze medals, because of the unique criteria being used to score them. "It will tell the rest of the world which things our universities aren't very good at teaching,” says Hillman, at a time when studying in the UK is about to become a more onerous prospect for European students. A lot of students might say, forget it.

For Zoe, as long as she has her guarantee, she still thinks the UK will be a good place to study - for now. "I haven't made a decision about whether I want to stay in the UK after studying,” she says. "For me, I've never felt as much German as I do European. Not having the UK in the EU will feel strange.”

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