How Brexit is impacting international student demand to the UK Skip to main content

The UK is naturally a first-choice study abroad option for European students who want to improve their English, study at world-class universities, broaden their cultural horizons and stay relatively close to their continental home. Brexit may not only halt many of these prospective students’ study plans for the UK, but it could also deprive British universities of the cultural enrichment and academic excellence brought about by European students.

Using IQ On Demand tools, which analyses data from our suite of international student-facing websites, we delved into demand trends by prospective students from EU countries for key higher education destinations over the last two years. The graph below shows the key English-speaking study destinations searched by EU students, with the UK showing a significant lead over competitors.

Demand from EU countries for HE study options in key English-speaking destinations over last two years (showing market share)

The UK saw relatively steady demand between January 2019 and May 2020, before climbing up to a peak of 56.53% share at the beginning of August 2020. Demand then started to decline reaching the lowest point in the two-year period of 42.69% share by December 2020. This decline in demand coincides with the lead up to the UK officially leaving the EU on December 31st, 2020.

Interestingly, the Republic of Ireland, which remains in the EU, saw an increase in volume and share as a destination towards the end of 2020. The increase in share rises from October 2020, reaching a two-year peak for the Republic of Ireland in December of 11.50%. In November 2020 Ireland overtook Australia for the first time in two years, a very promising sign for The Republic. We wouldn’t be surprised to see Ireland’s market share increasing even more over the coming years.

Forming part of Brexit negotiations, the UK also left the Erasmus study exchange scheme, after being a member since 1987. The scheme enables students from EU member states to study abroad for a semester or a full academic year. The UK’s decision to leave the scheme will make studying in the UK much more expensive and unattainable for many prospective European students who would previously have considered the UK as a study destination.

The realisation of the UK leaving the EU and the exit from Erasmus may have had an influence on search trends to the UK, particularly as reflected in the graph from August 2020 onwards. However, we will be keeping a close eye on demand trends in years to come to monitor the impact of Brexit on student movement particularly between Europe, the UK and the Republic of Ireland.

The below graph shows the same dataset as the above graph in volume (instead of % share). Here we can see the number of users from EU countries searching for higher education options in key English-speaking destinations. Search trends for the UK over the two-year period are markedly sporadic compared to other destinations shown on the graph. While the competing destinations on this graph reflect gradual rises and dips, the UK shows particularly dramatic ups and downs throughout the two-year period. This is perhaps a reflection of the uncertainty and indecision that have characterised the leadup to finalising Brexit. The notable drop in volume towards the end of 2020 could be attributed to a response to the looming finalisation of Brexit on December 31st.

Demand from EU countries for higher education study options in key English-speaking destinations over last two years (showing volume)

Non-EU international students

As the current conservative government envisions a ‘Global Britain’ post-Brexit, perhaps the hope is that the UK will see an increase of international students from non-EU countries. We used our IQ On Demand tool to look at global demand (excluding EU countries) over the last two years to see how the UK is faring. In the graph below it’s clear that competition among key destinations is much tighter. In the first section of this article, it’s evident that Britain has a strong competitive advantage with regards to the EU student market, due in part to its geography. However, when it comes to non-EU international students it’s a much more competitive picture, as can be seen in the graphs below.

Demand from non-EU international countries for higher education study options in key English-speaking destinations over last two years (showing market share)

Canada, the UK and Australia are the most popular destinations with Canada predominantly taking the lead and dominating with regards to market share towards the end of 2020. Between May and October 2020 the UK saw a sharp rise in demand, before dipping down below Canada as the year drew to a close. At the end of 2020, Canada looked very strong with 37.03% of market share compared to the UK’s 27.53%.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK has managed to keep it’s borders open to international students, while other destinations like Australia have remained shut. With COVID-19 vaccines rolling out around the world, it will be a matter of time before borders start to reopen and the UK loses this ‘competitive advantage’.

The US interestingly saw an increase in market share towards the end of 2020, which coincides with the announcement of the 2020 US election results. While this increase in percentage share for the US can most likely be attributed to the loss in volume towards the end of 2020 for the top three most searched destinations (Canada, the UK and Australia), the US still poses a threat to competitors by maintaining steady volume levels. Volume for the same dataset as above of non-EU international student demand can be seen in the graph below. We suspect that demand for the US is likely to rise over the next four years under a Biden administration, which, compared to the Trump administration, is much more welcoming to international students.

Demand from non-EU international countries for higher education study options in key English-speaking destinations over last two years (showing volume)

Conclusion

The data indicates that demand from EU international students to the UK is likely to decrease over time now that Brexit is a reality. This means that the UK will become more reliant on non-EU international students, which as we can see from the data poses a much more competitive playing field. The UK will need to be agile, proactive and innovative to maintain its high market share. It will be vital for UK institutions to respond to the needs of prospective international students. For example, non-EU international students value in-country post-study work opportunities more than their European counterparts. This means that there would need to be an increasingly strong focus on post-study work opportunities for international students. Welcoming more highly skilled graduates into the British workforce would in fact be a smart move for the economy, which could do with a sustained boost.

Finally, while the UK is likely to see a decline of EU students due to Brexit, The Republic of Ireland is likely to gain. In fact, The Republic of Ireland is a perfect choice for European students who want to improve their English, study at world-class universities, broaden their cultural horizons and stay relatively close to home. None of the other key English-speaking destinations offer all these benefits. We’ll be following the trends on our IQ On Demand tool with great interest this year.

Franki Clemens14 January 2021

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