As an EU student at Oxford, the consequences of Brexit have, so far, and luckily, been grossly underwhelming. The – admittedly irrational – scenarios of being denied entry into the country upon returning for Hilary term, or having my fees raised mid-degree, did not come true. The supply-shortages that I thought might mark my first year came, but rather than a result of a no-deal Brexit, they were instead caused by a global pandemic.
A very real change, however, came when universities minister Michelle Donelan announced that, on June 23, from August 2021, EU students will lose home fee status and will no longer be eligible for student loans in England. This should come as no surprise. Though face-to-face negotiations have picked up again, there is currently no indication that the EU and the UK will find agreement on a number of significant issues. I’ve been expecting this change since I started applying to Oxford, wondering if I would make it in on time. Going into second year, it won’t affect my undergraduate degree. However, it will leave the international student population in England even more skewed toward wealthy, privately educated students.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) said, in response to the recent changes, that “history suggests that the education on offer in our universities is something people are willing to pay for”. Considering the exorbitant fees charged to international students, however, deciding to study in England is not so much a question of willingness, as one of privilege.
For students from the European Union, justifying paying £9,250 annually is difficult enough. Higher education in most EU countries is considerably cheaper, or free. For many, however, studying in the UK offers unique access to education and employment opportunities. EU-wide, the 2019 graduate employment rate – the percentage of graduates aged 20 to 34 who had completed their education or training between one and three years prior – was at 80.9%. The UK graduate employment rate in the same year was slightly higher, at 85.4%, while the lowest rates were recorded in Italy (58.7%) and Greece (59.4%). It is even higher in a number of countries – Germany and Sweden, where higher education is basically free, and in the Netherlands, where students pay just over €2,000 annually. UK universities also have the added benefit of teaching in English. The number of courses taught completely in English throughout the EU is increasing, but living and studying in a country with another different language is an extra barrier for many European students.
The decision to remove EU students’ home fee status will not just make students reconsider studying in England – for many, it will remove the option altogether . At the University of Oxford, international students pay between £25,740 and £36,065 per year, depending on the course. Dishing out an extra £50,000 to £80,000 for a three year degree is not, for most, a question of willingness, but ability.
Across UK universities, international students made up 10.5% of 2017 undergraduate admissions, while another 5.6% were EU nationals. With fees adjusted to a post-Brexit world, this is sure to change. The HEPI predicts that enrolments from EU countries are likely to decrease by about 60% as a result of the increased fees. A study conducted after Donelan’s announcement even found that 84% of students who were previously looking to study in the UK were planning to look elsewhere. EU students with the ability to study in England despite the changes are – unless financial aid and scholarships become more generous and accessible – likely to represent a privileged minority.
None of this should be a shock. International students have paid these fees for years, and faced the additional barriers of paying for long-distance flights and applying for visas. Hillman rightly said that “it is morally and legally difficult to continue charging lower fees to EU citizens than we already charge to people from the rest of the world”. With the transition period set to end on 31 December 2020, there is no reason why EU citizens should continue to pay less for their education in England than the rest of the world.
The Oxford Admissions Statistical Report does not report educational background, race, or disabilities of the intake of non-UK students. Tuition fees paid by overseas students, however, are obviously one great hurdle to equal access. The high fees charged to international, and soon, EU students, are at odds with outreach-efforts and progress made by universities across the UK. While the current situation, in which EU students are at an advantage, is greatly unjust, this change takes us no further in removing inequalities worldwide. It must be followed by efforts to diversify student populations – home, EU, or international.
Though the decision to remove EU students’ home status was made by the government, Oxford has a special responsibility here. Gábor Csontos of the Guardian writes: “Oxbridge and the Russell Group (…) achieved their positions in global networks of research and knowledge in large part because of the material, financial and intellectual capital they accumulated over centuries. They vastly benefitted from their host nations’ colonial expansion, imperialism, and exploitation of waged and slave labour.” As an institution that is the product of a history of exploitation resulting in an unequal distribution of resources and opportunities, the university must make an active effort to counteract those disparities.
In response to the announcement, HEPI-Director Hillman also said that “we need to make it abundantly clear to people from the EU and beyond that our universities remain open to all.” In an email sent out to students on Brexit-night, Vice-Chancellor Louise Richardson said that the university was doing “doing everything [it could] to preserve – and enhance – [its] ability to recruit and retain the best students, staff and academics from around the world”. Although the government made the decision to change EU students’ status, it remains to be seen whether the university – through increasing outreach, scholarships, and financial assistance – backs its statements with action.