Investigation: Finnish students shun university education in post-Brexit Britain

There are several hundred fewer Finnish students applying for university places in the UK now than before Britain voted to leave the EU - with uncertainty over Brexit the key reason.

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File picture of New College and Assembly Hall, University of Edinburgh / Credit: iStock

The number of Finnish students applying for university places in the UK has dropped by almost a quarter in recent years, with students and education experts citing a range of Brexit-related concerns, as well as the ease of applying to universities in other EU countries instead.

The latest figures from the UK’s Universities and Colleges Admission Service UCAS show that the number of Finns applying to study in the UK has fallen by 23% since 2015, the year before Britain voted in a referendum to leave the European Union.

And it’s not just Finnish students steering clear of UK universities. The statistics show a fall in applications from Sweden, Estonia, Norway, Italy, Germany and other European countries too.

“Brexit is the most obvious factor to explain the fact that less Finns are choosing to apply to study in the UK. Until January 2020, the most likely cause has been the uncertainty about the future of the UK” explains Frans Cederlöf, Member of the Board of the National Union of University Students in Finland SYL.

“From now on, a very likely cause will be intimidation by the visa process and the ease of applying to other European countries” he says.

Brexit scares away student applicants

Before 2016, the number of Finnish applicants to UK universities had been growing steadily, nearly doubling between 2006 and 2016 to more than a thousand applicants a year.

However, since the UK voted to leave the European Union in June 2016, the number of Finnish applicants has dropped to 805 in 2019, a fall of nearly a quarter.

Finnish high school graduates say they’re discouraged from applying due to continued confusion about what Britain’s future relationship might be with the EU from the end of the 2020 transition period, and how it will impact foreigners who live and study there.

“I’m graduating this year, and I’ve also thought about studying in the UK but in the end decided not to apply” says Elias Pitkänen, International Officer for the Union of Upper Secondary School Students in Finland SLL.

“The main reason has to be all of the uncertainty around Brexit. Young people, who already are facing a life-changing decision, have to consider every uncertain and possibly scary thing that comes with moving abroad. After leaving the EU, will I be allowed to stay? Are the tuitions going to skyrocket? Can I find affordable housing?” he tells News Now Finland.

UCAS statistics reveal that in 2020 the downward spiral is likely to continue, since at the  the January deadline there are 640 applicants compared to 720 at the same point a year before.

File picture of university student throwing cap into air / Credit: iStock

International students integral for cash-strapped UK universities

The importance of foreign students to UK academic institutions is extremely important, and almost 20% of the total UK student population is made up of foreign students – crucial for both research and funding.

“Students from other countries bring much needed diversity to university campuses and lecture halls, with benefits for all. Higher education is at its best when national boundaries do not hinder academic activity” says Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute HEPI – Britain’s only independent think tank dealing exclusively with higher education – explains.

Besides being responsible for more than 55% of all academic publications in UK universities, international students and staff play an important part in financing universities in the UK.

Universities UK, the umbrella organisation for British academic institutions, estimates that in 2014-2015 international students contributed around £25.8 billion [€33.4 billion] in gross output to the UK economy.

For British universities which are already facing financial pressure after a period of rapid expansion and rising debts, the loss of income from international students can have stark consequences.

In January 2019, groups representing more than 150 higher education centres across the UK wrote a letter to British Members of Parliament warning that leaving the EU without a deal in respect of the universities could lead to an academic, cultural and scientific setback “from which it would take decades to recover”.

British Embassy wants to paints a different picture

Despite the sharp drop in the number of Finns applying to study at UK universities, the British Embassy in Helsinki wants to paint an altogether rosier picture of the situation.

Ambassador Tom Dodd says the overall number of Finnish students studying in the UK is still up since Brexit.

He’s right, but it’s an easy statistic to recite and which only tells part of the story.

There was indeed a bump in the number of applications in the years after the Brexit referendum – as we reported in 2018. But the reality is that the rush of applicants was likely due to students trying to secure places on courses before government funding commitments expired.

And any of those extra students who began a degree course during 2016 may already have started to graduate – meaning the total number of Finnish students at UK universities will anyway drop, given the overall trend in declining applications between 2015 and 2019.

“The UK Government greatly values all international students coming to study in the UK, including from Finland. In future, all such students will be able to work in the UK for up to 2 years following successful completion of their courses” says Ambassador Dodd.

British education still valued – but, Brexit

Despite the falling number of applicants, students and experts alike agree the UK is still an attractive destination due to the high quality of UK university education.

“I don’t believe that the attractiveness is the problem here. A bigger reason is that it is now easier to apply to other universities in Europe rather than to universities in the UK” says  Frans Cederlöf from the National Union of University Students.

The British Embassy points out that the UK has the highest number of universities in Europe in the top 100 institutions, and this is also recognised by Finnish students.

“Despite all the variables I listed, the UK is still most certainly an attractive place for students. A lot of people still apply, and the UK is still among the top nations Finns apply to. The charm is still there” says Elias Pitkänen from the Union of Upper Secondary School Students.

Much of the future of the UK’s higher education will depend on the actions which the UK government takes in the coming years.

“Our research suggests EU student numbers will fall further now that Brexit has happened” says Nick Hillman from HEPI.

“But that is not inevitable as it depends on our migration rules and also the degree to which universities market what they offer.”