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UCAS: EU Numbers Plummet in the Face of Brexit and Covid-19

Posted by Richard Ward

The latest data from UCAS, published on Scottish results day, shows a sharp drop in the number of placed applicants into university or college from all domiciles.

Whilst these figures will continue to evolve, the initial data shows a 21.0% year-on-year decline in the number of students accepted from the EU (ex-UK). Meanwhile, placed students from the UK and from outside the EU fell by 5.9% and 6.2% respectively.

Figure 1

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Source: UCAS

Whilst the data is negative from a demand perspective, it is too early to tell what the final impact will be for universities, as there is not a one-to-one relationship between UCAS stats and total full-time students as reported by HESA.

Furthermore, at the same point of 2019, UCAS reported a year-on-year decline in EU (ex-UK) placed applicants of 1.4%. However, 28 days after A-level results were released, the number of placed applicants from this domicile improved and ended up being in line with the previous year. Similarly, non-EU placed students were up 4.8% on SQA results day, but this grew to 6.2% by September 12th. This suggests the figures could yet improve, albeit they have some way to go to become positive.

The possible decline in full-time students from the EU raises questions over government policy to bring in temporary number controls. The measures have been introduced to "protect students and universities during the coronavirus outbreak". The policy specifically grants universities the ability to recruit full-time undergraduate UK and EU students for 2020-21 up to a temporary level, which is based on their own forecasts plus a maximum uplift of 5%.

The idea is that the measure will prevent more prestigious universities from simply recruiting a greater number of UK and EU students to make up for any shortfall in international numbers, at the expense of lower tiered institutions. However, not only does this favour those universities that, under normal circumstances forecasted growth, but if EU numbers do decline, then it will provide universities with the freedom to accept a greater proportion of domestic students, again at the expense of those institutions that are likely to have already struggled to expand their cohort under normal circumstances.

Scottish Numbers

In Scotland, 28,970 students have been accepted on SQA day, up from 28,750 students placed at the same time last year. Of those Scottish students accepted, 28,240 will be studying in Scotland.

EU (ex-UK) domiciled students planning to study in Scotland fell by 15.2% from 3,150 in 2019 to 2,670 in 2020. More positively, non-EU domiciled students increased by 1.3% year-on-year to 2,360.

Figure 2

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Source: UCAS

Whilst the deterioration in placed students from the EU (ex-UK) is almost certainly related to the effects of Covid-19 and the uncertainty it has created, there remain long-term questions over the attractiveness of Scottish institutions. This is due to the withdrawal of free tuition for those from the European Union from September 2021. A direct result of Brexit, this could have long-term ramifications for student numbers in Scotland and could exacerbate the flight to quality trend, if universities need to make up for a shortfall in EU numbers.

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