The government's tuition fee review ignores EU students | Paul Raybould

There has been plenty of speculation about what the Augar review of post-18 education and funding will mean for universities’ bottom lines. The report has proposed slashing tuition fees in England to £7,500, at a time when universities are feeling the effects of Brexit on EU recruitment and funding. There is a risk that the government may not compensate universities for this loss in revenue, which means they may instead look to international student student recruitment to strengthen the sector. But the Augar review report misses a key opportunity to address this.

It’s not all bad news: the government’s international education strategy, which launched earlier this year, was a positive first step. But we need further reform to achieve its goal of recruiting 600,000 international students by 2030. The Augar review panel say they have explicitly “considered the risks of a potential reduction in the number of EU students”, and are optimistic that this can be offset by a growth in the number of UK students.

But it’s clear that what universities need from government now is a holistic approach to EU and international recruitment and university funding. Understanding how international students make their decisions and their perceptions of studying in the UK provides a good starting point.

Our QS international student survey, launched this week, showed that EU students are concerned about paying higher fees at UK universities after Brexit, which would match the levels paid by international students from outside the EU. More than a third of EU students said they were less likely to come here, suggesting that the UK may lose up to 20,000 potential students. This poses a significant financial threat to UK universities, and would take the number of EU students in the UK down to its lowest level for at least five years.

When fees for domestic and EU students were hiked up in 2012, there was a significant drop in EU student numbers. We risk a similar situation if fees for EU students are increased upon the UK leaving the EU. It is welcome news that the government has just confirmed those beginning their degree in 2020-21 will pay the same fees as UK students. But the uncertainty over arrangements from 2021-22 is a major barrier for lots of prospective EU students.

Another problem is that EU students don’t necessarily understand what’s going on. Our research suggests that four in 10 prospective students from the EU didn’t realise they would still be charged UK fees in 2019-20. The government and universities have to communicate this more clearly to minimise the damage.

The government must provide clear, consistent information about the amount that EU students will be required to pay in the future. We’ve observed recruitment cycles over many years, and have found that three years is the minimum lead time to ease the impact. Equally, universities need this certainty to plan their recruitment strategies accordingly.

The UK’s world-leading higher education sector is rightfully celebrated for the teaching quality and student experience it can offer. We must ensure that university funding remains at at least the same levels to keep standards high. As Alistair Jarvis, chief executive at Universities UK, has said, cutting tuition fees “could lead to bigger class sizes, poorer facilities, labs and libraries, a worsening student experience and job cuts”. The UK can only rely on reputation for so long to sustain recruitment levels if funding for universities is cut. Quality and perceptions of value for money for international students would become an increasing challenge.

Theresa May’s higher education legacy is likely to be remembered for her tough immigration policies. Meanwhile the next administration will be the one to implement the recommendations of the Augar review. They have the opportunity to do this in a way that is sustainable and supports international students. We must continue to make the case for policies that will allow universities to grow their global education.


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