Brexit and British International Student Recruitment

I have recently been reading a book with a vivid title, Unleashing Demons.[i] The author is Craig Oliver, and the subject is the referendum on whether to remain a member of the European Union or to leave it. Oliver (knighted in 2016) was Director of Politics and Communications to the Prime Minister, then David Cameron, and he analyses how the government lost the case for Remain, giving a month by month account of the inside Brexit story. It was Cameron himself who, when asked to sum up the argument against holding a referendum, proclaimed: “You could unleash demons of which you know not”. And indeed the issue has proved to be extraordinarily toxic for the British body politic.

The two main issues became the economy versus immigration — which of course at present includes students. The government thought that concentrating on the economy would win hearts and minds since it directly impacted upon people’s personal finances, but instead the “disengaged” faction chose migration over the economy, and many used the opportunity to vote Leave against the government’s preferred policy of Remain; in many cases, this was a protest statement against all that they disliked about UK and European politics. Government members did point out the economic consequences of Brexit, but were accused of having promoted “Project Fear” in their campaign. When they lost, they greatly regretted that they had not squarely counter-accused their opponents of “Project Lie”. And indeed Leavers made many mendacious claims of which the most memorable one is probably that Leave would liberate £350 million per week that could be spent on the National Health Service. Concrete facts in relation to Brexit were scarce and often contested. In the interests of freedom of speech, the media often allowed politicians’ claims to be asserted without guiding the public on how to interpret them and without ensuring that misrepresentations were corrected.

After the failure of the Remain campaign, government officials regretted that they had not attended more to the plight of universities. Sajid Javid, then Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, worried that universities would be “in chaos, not knowing what the situation is around foreign students”. Globally, the UK is the second most important location for international study (after the USA). The following points are important.

  • International students are now worth £25 million to the economy, and numbers are expected to rise between the present and 2018-19.[i] However, after the Brexit vote, there was a 7% drop in applications from EU students – the first for a decade; the University of Cambridge recorded a 14% drop in undergraduate courses alone. Students from outside the European Union make up 60% of entrants to postgraduate full-time taught Master’s degrees. Applications from China are sustaining the sectoral rise: the share of Chinese full-time Master’s students increased from 12 to 26 per cent, while the proportion from other non-EU countries declined from 42 to 34 per cent.[ii] The decline in EU students means a loss of cultural diversity, and the UK’s decision to Leave may cause negative sentiment among potential EU students by making them feel unwelcome.
  • The government imposed immigration caps and believed that there were about 100,000 migrants in the UK who should not be here. It has resolutely refused to exempt students from the cap, despite their value to the economy, and despite their contribution to the “soft power” of the UK.  Ironically, a recent report from the Office for National Statistics reveals that about 97% of international students do leave the UK when they have finished their studies, so the figures about illegal and excessive student immigration have been exposed as utterly erroneous. Disinformation is still present, and the government is slow to respond to evidence that disconfirms its prejudices. A Migration Advisory Committee is due to report, but not until 2018.
  • Theresa May, when Home Secretary, wanted to make it tough for international students to gain a visa. Compliance with the visa regime is complicated and expensive for the universities who have to bear the cost burden amounting to millions of pounds sterling.
  • At present, students from EU countries have the right to study on the same terms financially as UK nationals, and are eligible for student loans. This may change after Brexit, though the Treasury has underwritten the continuation of such loans at least for those within the system at present. A study by HEPI and London Economics[iii] indicates that any further crackdown on such students will seriously damage higher education institutions and the whole British economy.

Higher education was an important part of the Brexit debate and in retrospect, members of the Remain campaign regretted that they had not devoted more attention to it. Craig Oliver in Unleashing Demons, describes how the Prime Minister felt he was walking a tightrope when dealing with immigration; he was really troubled by the skirmishes in relation to it, publicly even “tripping over his lines on the ‘tens of thousands’ migration target” when questioned by David Dimbleby. Oliver concludes (page 394): “There will come a moment where the current Prime Minister is faced by the irresistible force of those who want complete control of immigration and an end to free movement, and the immoveable object of business and the vast majority of MPs that supported Remain, who demand as much access to the single market as possible.

Both cannot happen.

Compromise is inevitable.”

Universities will be caught in the crossfire.

[i] Oliver, C. (2016) Unleashing Demons: the Inside Story of Brexit. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

[i] “ International Students now worth £25 billion to UK economy.” Accessed on 5.11.2017 from—new-research.aspx

[ii] Accessed on 5.11.2017 from

  1. Conlon, G., Ladher, R. and Halterback, M. (12.1.2017) “The Determinants of International Demand for UK Higher Education.” Banbury: HEPI (Higher Education Policy Institute).

Rosalind Pritchard

Rosalind Pritchard

Professor Emeritus of Ulster University

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