September 2021 saw the start of the first academic year since the consequences of the UK’s departure from the European Union came into effect. The impact of Brexit has been felt both in UK universities and in the EU-27, albeit not evenly. The expected decline in EU nationals coming to the UK has largely materialised, but even the worst-affected universities have been able to offset this with an increase in domestic or non-EU students. This is partly a result of changes in UK higher education policy and visa restrictions being eased.  Post-pandemic bounce-back in domestic numbers has also helped universities cushion the blow, even when they might have lost as much as 90% of their EU enrolments at undergraduate level.

If British universities have largely escaped any negative consequences on student numbers so far, then British students have not been nearly so lucky. The withdrawal of student finance where available elsewhere in Europe, and the introduction of international tuition fees, has seen previously affordable options become significantly more expensive. In the Netherlands, for example, tuition fees at most universities have increased from around €2,000 a year to a minimum of €8,000 but usually higher. Tuition fee loans are also not available, so students now have to finance their education from their own resources. It might seem surprising then that the number of British students at Dutch universities has only dropped by 25% this year. It is likely that a large proportion of British residents still going to Dutch universities will be in possession of an EU passport.

Brexit has not only had an impact in the United Kingdom, however. It has started to change the English-taught higher education landscape throughout the EU-27 and it is these developments that are likely to be more important. Brexit has diverted a huge flow of EU nationals from UK universities and, if unchecked, this could lead to structural issues in any EU member state where public universities are teaching largely, or entirely, in English.

Ireland, now the only country within the EU teaching fully in English, has seen an average 20% increase in EU nationals at undergraduate level, with University of Limerick up 34% (Trinity College Dublin saw an increase of 8% reflecting its higher proportion of EU students even pre-Brexit). Without Ireland’s somewhat complicated system of post-qualification admissions, and points tariffs for every undergraduate degree, it is likely that EU student enrolments would have increased even further. This protects universities from a sudden surge in student numbers, but it does also mean that Irish students face far greater competition for places in their own country.

The two non-English speaking EU member states with significant numbers of English-taught Bachelor’s degrees are Denmark and The Netherlands. Both of these countries are experiencing the consequences of increased demand for English-taught degrees from students of other EU nationalities.

For the first time since launching A Star Future and its database of English-taught undergraduate opportunities, we have recently had to remove a significant number of options. Over the last decade in particular, there has been massive growth in options for English-speaking students but this might now have peaked in the public sector. The Danish government has taken steps to reduce the amount of English-taught degrees at Academies and University Colleges across the country but particularly in the major cities. Almost all Danish universities now have a page on their website referencing a political decision to stop English-taught Academy Professional (AP) and Bachelor Top-Ups from September 2022. The national Study in Denmark website makes no such reference to this situation and is consequently somewhat out of date.

It would be stretching the truth to say that the reduction of English-taught options in Denmark is a direct consequence of Brexit but it has the same root cause. International student demand is driven by any number of factors but two of the most consistently important are quality and affordability. The quality of Danish higher education, coupled with zero tuition fees for EU nationals and generous study grants, has led many students to Denmark. Very few remain in the country upon completion of their studies, and therefore do not contribute to the country’s tax base, so it is perhaps understandable that this has become a political issue. With the UK becoming particularly unaffordable post-Brexit, it is likely this trend would have become unmanageable without this step being taken. There are now only around 40 English-taught Bachelor’s degrees remaining at Danish universities.

If Ireland can limit the number of EU students through entry requirements, and Denmark can do so by reducing the number of options on offer, there is one country that will struggle unless wholesale changes to university admissions are introduced. The Netherlands’ success in increasing international student numbers in recent years, through the growth in English-taught programmes and its reputation for excellence, means that the country has become the first-choice destination for many students, not just those who were already convinced by the merits of a Dutch education. Many EU students who can no longer afford the United Kingdom are now drawn to the Netherlands.

A quarter of all students in the Netherlands are now from abroad, approximately 72% of them from the European Economic Area and therefore entitled to pay the same tuition fees as domestic students. There are 115,000 international students at Dutch universities in 2021/22. Five years ago there were only 77,000. This growth has been mostly experienced in the research universities’ English-taught Bachelor’s degrees where there has been a 90% increase in first-year students since 2017/18. Bachelor’s degrees at Universities of Applied Sciences have seen a 24% increase in international student numbers over the same period. Assuming there is no significant drop-out rate, the number of international undergraduate students at Dutch universities will increase from approximately 53,000 in 2017/18 to 82,000 in the current academic year and on to 126,000 in 2023/24. This is before any further increase in international student enrolments is taken into consideration.

Such growth is unsustainable, particularly in the English-taught Bachelor’s degrees at research universities. Currently, unless there are restrictions, any student with an appropriate academic high school diploma (International Baccalaureate, A Levels at CCC or better etc) is entitled to a place on a Dutch university degree for at least the first year. Numerus Fixus restricts the number of places on some degrees but by no means all of them. It is likely that some kind of restriction will need to be introduced but it is difficult to do so in a way that is compatible with EU law and the Dutch ethos of open access to higher education. Not all degrees at Dutch universities are facing the same rapid growth but it is clear that in some fields, entry will need to become more selective and places will need to be limited.

As international students from the EEA are entitled to Dutch student loans and their tuition fees are subsidised, there is a real cost to the Dutch taxpayer of this rapid expansion. Additionally, there are concerns about the ability of Dutch universities to maintain academic standards when faced with such an increase in student numbers. Student experience is also likely to be affected and it is already clear that the housing market was struggling even before the most recent increase in student numbers.

It is likely to become harder in the coming years to study in English at public universities within the European Union. The pressure from the diversion of international students from the United Kingdom will have consequences for the options that are becoming more popular. Degrees in the social sciences and law at Dutch universities are already struggling with increased numbers and it is likely that others will also have to review their entry requirements. Opportunities for EEA passport holders are going to be harder to come by. The future of English-taught higher education in the European Union will almost certainly see a bigger role played by the private sector. The days when individual member states are willing to fund the education of large numbers of “foreign yet domestic” students are limited.

Private universities are likely to grow in response to a demand for English-taught higher education. These are already the most common providers of English-taught Bachelor’s degrees in France, Germany, Spain and Italy. While tuition fees are higher because of the lack of direct or indirect subsidy, it is still likely that they will be below the amounts charged to international students in the United Kingdom. Already, in the Netherlands, a new private university of applied sciences, Haarlem Campus, is launching English-taught degrees from September 2022. Its offer includes guaranteed accommodation, addressing one of the key concerns that international students are likely to have. This trend is likely to accelerate as demand for English-taught higher education in the EU is unlikely to decrease any time soon.

About A Star Future

A Star Future provides information and guidance to British students looking to pursue their undergraduate studies abroad.

Through our presentations in schools and our websites we aim to ensure that British-educated students are well informed about their choices.