Canadian universities are weighing the prospect of a potentially lucrative increase in fee-paying students from Europe as opinion polls suggest that a looming British referendum could see the United Kingdom leave the European Union. Prime Minister David Cameron has warned that a vote to leave the EU in the June 23 referendum would lead to new visa barriers and higher tuition fees for European students in Britain, making it more likely that future students would choose universities in Canada, Australia and other countries.
The 125,000 EU students in Britain add an estimated £3.7 billion (C$6.8 billion) a year to the U.K. economy, according to Universities UK, which represents 133 member universities. The organization concedes that many of these students would go elsewhere if Britain left the EU.
“It would definitely be a great opportunity for Canadian universities to attract more students from Europe, so it is quite an exciting prospect,” said Tom Whittaker, a U.K.-based international recruitment officer working for the University of British Columbia. “UBC certainly has the capacity and appetite to take more European students, and if the British step out of the EU they will be giving up some major competitive advantages that they now have over countries like Canada.”
EU students enjoy visa-free travel and the same access as British students to student loans and the cheaper tuition fees charged to domestic students rather than the much higher fees charged to other foreigners. The International Education Association of Australia said that a British decision to leave the EU would be “a gift” to countries competing with the U.K. in offering an English-language education environment, a view echoed by the Canadian Bureau of International Education.
The Canadian government has stepped up its efforts to attract international students at all levels over the past two years, with the goal of lifting the 2014 total of 336,500 international students to 450,000 by 2022. According to CBIE, Canada attracted 19,035 French-speaking students in 2014, largely due to an agreement giving them cheaper tuition fees in Quebec, and 3,516 students from the U.K. But the other 26 EU nations provided a total of only 10,207 students and the only other EU nation to rank in the top 30 sources of international students to Canada was Germany (ranked 19) with 2,520. The untapped potential in Europe is shown by the fact that China, India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. each sent more students to Canada in 2014 than the combined total from all 26 EU nations apart from France and the U.K.
The efforts by Canada’s federal government to attract more foreign students have largely been aimed at emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil, but CBIE says more should be done in Europe. “We need to take a closer look at some of the European countries where youth unemployment has led to a greater interest in study abroad outside the EU,” said CBIE communications director Jacquelyn Hoult.
“Spain is an example and our member universities are doing more marketing there,” said Ms. Hoult. “With the change in government [in Canada] it is timely to revisit the strategy, both the focus markets and the mechanisms by which we are addressing them.”
UBC’s Mr. Whittaker said his university has a goal of lifting foreign student enrolment from 20 percent to 25 percent of its student body, but also wanted a diverse spread of nationalities. “You don’t want all your foreign students to come from just a few countries such as China and India, so there are real advantages in attracting a mix from across Europe as well,” he said.
Matthew Goodwin, a professor of political science at London’s Chatham House think tank, said the comfortable early lead in opinion polls for a vote to remain in the U.K. has disappeared. Public support for limiting EU immigration appeared to be trumping concerns about the economic costs of leaving the world’s largest single market, he said.
The U.K.’s ruling Conservative Party is split on the issue, with several of the party’s prominent cabinet ministers opposing Prime Minister Cameron by campaigning for a “leave” vote. However, one area where there is little division on the issue is at the top of the U.K. education sector. The vice-chancellors of 132 British universities have unanimously opposed leaving the EU and not a single leader of the college or school associations has backed leaving.
“Leaving the EU and putting up barriers to work and study makes it more likely that European students and researchers will choose to go elsewhere, strengthening our competitors and weakening the U.K.’s universities,” says Dame Julia Goodfellow, vice-chancellor of the University of Kent and president of Universities UK. Michael Arthur, president of University College London, said the likely fall in EU student numbers would be “potentially devastating” for his university, which receives 12 percent of its students and £40 million (C$73 million) in tuition fees from EU countries.
Universities UK says British postsecondary institutions would also sacrifice a competitive advantage in academic research by losing the disproportionate share of research funds they receive from the EU. Only the Netherlands wins more on a per capita basis among the 28 EU members, and the U.K. receives about £1.40 for every £1 it puts into EU research funding.
Academics say the benefits that EU membership provides by supporting collaboration with other EU nations to share ideas, datasets and other resources is even more valuable than the money Britain receives in EU research funds. University of Cambridge vice-chancellor Leszek Borysiewicz said it would be “complete idiocy” for the U.K. to undermine that collaboration and abandon its current position of leadership in EU higher education.
“The real loss is that we would not be able to collaborate in the way we do today,” he said. “We’d become an irrelevance in so many fields. You can’t think you will stand alone and retain the leadership that we have.” He added: “We’re in a global market and in a global competition for talent. While the U.K. outside of the EU might continue to have world-leading universities and research facilities, our capacity to attract that talent would be eroded.”
Christopher Leigh, a Liverpool-based astronomer and spokesperson for Scientists for Britain, a small group of academics opposed to EU membership, argues that scientific collaboration “is perfectly achievable without EU oversight.” While conceding that Britain would be competing for European students on “a more level playing field” with Canada, the U.S. and Australia, Dr. Leigh stressed that those countries have their own visa hurdles and the U.K. would continue to enjoy advantages in “travel costs and cultural links” with Europe.
“One would also hope that this level playing field would mean that U.K. universities would not be required to favour EU scientists over non-EU scientists, which would prove beneficial to scientists from the Commonwealth that seek to work in the U.K.,” he said. About 15 percent of all academic staff teaching and researching at U.K. universities are from elsewhere in the EU, he said, and erecting new visa barriers to the EU would almost certainly make it easier for academics from Canada and elsewhere to win positions at U.K. universities.
Peter Wilson is an Australian freelance writer based in London.