On June 23, 2016, the United Kingdom (UK) left the European Union (EU). With this exit, or Brexit, the citizens of the UK expected many things to change, including immigration. One thing that these Brexiters failed to account for was the dramatic impact that Brexit would have on the immigration status of students in the British education system. Due to the dramatic effects of Brexit, the UK has seen a massive fall in applicants at its universities.

Throughout modern history, one thing that the UK has been known for is its system of tertiary education. Historically, the UK has one of the most robust university systems in the world with 165 higher education institutions spread across the UK in 2018-2019. Traditionally students at British Universities have seen the UK as the top destination for higher education, one survey showing the UK education quality at 96% while the US was at 93% and Germany and Canada at 88%. In the year 2018/19, the number of EU students in the UK was over 140,000. Before Brexit, the UK ranked second after the US for having international students attend their universities, with 36% of these international undergraduate students being from EU nations. 

Under Articles 18, 20, and 21 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), freedom of movement is guaranteed for citizens of the EU, allowing EU students to study in the UK as if they were studying in their home nation. Many EU students in the past were enticed to study in the UK because of the EU’s Freedom of Movement. Before Brexit, any EU citizen under Article 45 of the TFEU could apply for a job in another EU country, reside there for work, or stay after employment had finished. This meant that many students would go to University in the UK and know they would be allowed to stay after finishing their education.

As of December 31, 2020, the UK signed into law the Immigration Act, which ended the freedom of movement in the UK for EU citizens who do not have a registered residence in the UK. To now study in the UK, students from the EU, Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, or Liechtenstein are required to have a visa under similar requirements to that of students from outside the EU.

Brexit has dramatically decreased the number of applications from the EU to UK Universities. For the year 2021-2022, there was a decrease in applications of 40% coming from students from EU countries. It is believed that COVID-19 is not to blame for this decrease, as there has been an increase in applications of 17.1% to study in the UK coming from non-EU nations.

There are many reasons suggested why there has been a drop in European students attending University in the UK. The first reason may be because of the process and price of the immigration process. Brexit has raised the cost of education in the UK by not only creating visa requirements, but also increasing the EU student’s tuition fees, and their abilities to secure loans. Before Brexit, students from EU countries paid the same fees as UK students (9,250 GBP in England, 9,000 GBP in Wales, or basically free in Scotland where there is no fee for university if you are a Scottish citizen or previously an EU citizen). This change in fees has created a massive wealth gap in which students from poorer EU nations can no longer afford to study within the UK. After Brexit, each UK University has created its own fee, there will be an application fee, visa requirement, immigration health surcharge, and students may no longer be able to apply for student loan forgiveness or have free university in Scotland. This has made it much more expensive and arduous to apply to University in the UK. 

Before Brexit, European students could stay in the UK after graduation because of Article 45 of the TFEU. The ease of potentially finding a job in the UK was a large driver for students to attend University in the UK. Now many of these students have seen their employment prospects diminished, as they will be required to obtain visas just like external applicants to remain in the UK after graduation. One exception to this is that international students can now apply to live and work in the UK for up to 2 years after they graduate without have a job secured. Applications to UK Universities have dropped the most from EU students who are from countries with lower employment rates, and lower capital GDP, most likely because of the higher likelihood to get a job in the UK after graduation, as compared to their home country, was a factor in them leaving their home to study there.

There is a third factor that may be affecting applications to UK Universities. There is a theory that psychological factors of an unfriendly environment toward EU residents after Brexit may be playing a part in students not applying to UK Universities. Many EU citizens see they are no longer welcome to attend university in a country that is not welcoming of immigrants and that discourages them from staying after they have completed their studies. 

Brexit has had a disastrous effect on the University System in the UK. Students from outside the UK, especially from the EU, have built the UK education system into what it is today. Attracting international students has been an important way to retain and entice foreign talent in the UK for productivity and innovation. Without many of these foreign students, Universities in the UK will continue to suffer.

Author Biography: Katie Eige is a Moderator of the International Law Society’s International Law and Policy Brief (ILPB) and a J.D. candidate at The George Washington University Law School. She has a bachelor’s degree in International Relations from The George Washington University and a master’s degree in Global Security from the University of Glasgow.