Photographer: Jon Bower/Getty Images

Brexit Threatens British University Dream for EU Students

  • Uncertainty hangs over ‘home fees’ for autumn 2017 enrollments
  • For some courses, EU students may face fees of 35,000 pounds

For Fabienne Vicari, Brexit has made the prospect of sending her son to a U.K. university more remote.

Like thousands of parents in the European Union, the Italian-French mother of three living in Rome is confronting a potential byproduct of the U.K.’s vote to leave the 28-country bloc: the more than doubling of British university fees. After decades during which EU citizens studying at U.K. universities were charged “home fees,” or the same amount as their British counterparts, the Brexit vote may lump them with international students, whose annual tuition can go higher than 35,000 pounds ($46,000).

“If you get into Cambridge or Oxford it can be an investment, but otherwise it’s not really worth it anymore,” said Vicari, whose oldest son, Michele, will have to choose a university next year for enrollment in autumn 2017. “You want them to have an international education -- I spent a year studying in the U.K. when I was young -- but you have to use common sense too.”

As the U.K.’s vote to leave the EU slowly sinks in, citizens of the rest of the bloc are counting the cost of the disengagement. While the free movement of EU citizens, trade, financial transactions and political wranglings have grabbed world headlines, in some households from Paris and Rome to Berlin and Amsterdam questions are emerging on the impact of the possible exit on issues such as higher education.

‘Lot of Concern’

There are about 125,000 EU students at British universities, who pay home fees and are eligible for student loans, according to data from the U.K. Council for International Student Affairs. While EU students currently enrolled have received reassurances from most universities that they will continue to pay home fees of about 9,000 pounds for the academic year that starts in September, there are no guarantees that will continue.

“There’s a lot of concern -- especially around issues like fees going up,” said Agustin Ferrari, 19, a Madrid resident who holds German, Swiss and Argentine nationalities and is studying politics and anthropology at the University of Cambridge. “Even if it won’t necessarily affect those of us who are here now, people worry about how it might in the future in terms of their ability to do further study or stay in the U.K. to work.”

Future applicants may be stuck with annual fees of about 23,000 pounds, or more than 35,000 pounds for lab-based or medical degrees. They may no longer have access to student loans that, for some, meant tuition coverage with repayment only after obtaining a job -- work that was often in the U.K. where, as EU citizens, they needed no visas. In Scotland, where EU students pay no tuition if they meet some conditions, the shock may be greater. They could face fees of 30,000 pounds a year as international students.

“Young Europeans may miss their chance at getting to know our somewhat difficult island neighbor, and that can’t bode well for the future,” Lise Briant, a French high school teacher of English who spent a year in the U.K. as a student, said in an interview from her home in Paris.

Open Letter

A few days before the June 23 vote, about 100 vice-chancellors of U.K. universities signed an open letter in which they said leaving the EU could “undermine our position as a global leader in science and innovation, impoverish our campuses and limit opportunities for British people.” After the vote, U.K. University Minister Jo Johnson was quick to reassure students in a statement posted on the government’s website that both currently enrolled students, and those arriving in autumn, will have their student loans funding honored. 

In an e-mail to students and alumni, the London School of Economics made a similar statement about honoring home fees. No decisions have, however, been made regarding EU students registering in autumn 2017 and after, the LSE e-mail said. Most U.K. universities are sending similar letters.

Moody’s Investors Service last week changed its outlook for six universities, noting the sector typically receives significant funding from the EU and could find it harder to recruit academics and students. It estimated 5 percent of students and 15 percent of teaching staff currently in the U.K. come from the region.

Some parents are now clinging to the hope that Scotland, which voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, will find a way to stay in the bloc.

“I hope Scotland leaves the U.K. and we can all go there, or to Ireland,” Marica Grillo, an interpreter and founder of My Language, an English-language studies center in the southern Italian city of Cerignola, said in a phone interview. “We have so many young people who want to learn English and study or work in the U.K. Entire family strategies may change from primary school all the way to secondary if university is no longer an option due to higher fees.”

Best Export

The issue is a cause for concern for Europe’s international schools, which lure parents by holding out the possibility of studying at English or U.S. universities. As the U.K., which had a significant price advantage over the U.S., risks losing that edge, high schools are scrambling to respond.

Take Cognita, a group co-owned by private equity firm Bregal Capital and KKR that has 69 schools worldwide, including the International School of Barcelona and Hastings School in Madrid. The firm says it will work with British school groups in Spain to limit the impact from Brexit.

Sir Roger Fry, honorary president of the Council of British International Schools and the founder and chairman of King’s Group, which operates eight schools, including five in Spain, estimates revenue at British international schools worldwide at 2.1 billion pounds based on about 3,000 schools with about 700 pupils paying about 10,000 pounds a year each.

Fry, like many in Europe, is hoping the U.K. won’t mess with the university system in place for EU students.

“Education is one of our best exports and it is understood at government level,” he said. “I’m sure that most of us expect that EU countries will want to negotiate good trade agreements with the U.K. and that the U.K. will want to include good terms for university fees. ”

Still, many in Europe worry good sense may not prevail.

“For generations of students, going to the U.K. has meant trying fish and chips, learning proper English, making friends over a bitter beer, and looking out for cars from the right,” said French school teacher Briant. “If a whole layer of middle-class families has to give up on that due to costs, that’s really sad.”

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