On 24 December 2020, close to the end of the 11-month Brexit transition period, the United Kingdom and the European Union announced that they had struck a post-Brexit trade deal. The announcement brought relief to politicians and businessmen on both sides, who had for years feared the wreckage of a no deal exit.

The signing of the agreement came on December 30 after nine months of difficult negotiations, finally sealing the United Kingdom's exit from the European bloc and ending a saga that had lasted four years. As of January 1, 2021, a series of new rules started to govern the relations between Britain and its continental neighbors, from trade to finance, from agriculture to fishing, from tourism to defense.

One of the areas where the changes are already being felt is higher education. The U.K. is historically one of the world's leading study destinations. Home to some of the most renowned universities on the planet and boasting cutting-edge research facilities, the U.K. attracted 496,570 international students in 2019, second only to the U.S. (with 1,095,299), according to the latest data released by Project Atlas.

The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), on its turn, shows in its most recent report that in 2019/20 there were 538,615 international students in the U.K., of which 142,985 were from the European Union.

E.U. nationals have always represented an important portion of the international students who annually apply for higher education courses in the United Kingdom. Apart from the language and the well known quality of its educational institutions, other factors that have always attracted students from the European Union have been visa exemption, home fee status, easy access to student loans, unrestricted access to the public health system, and the possibility of working legally both during and after the end of the course.

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With the U.K.'s exit from the European Union, however, the British government decided to end home fee status for E.U., other European Economic Area (EEA) and Swiss nationals, meaning they will no longer be charged the same tuition rates as domestic students. The change applies to students starting academic courses in England, Scotland or Wales from August 2021.

Until last year, E.U. nationals paid the same tuition fees as U.K. citizens, up to £9,250 ($11,500) per year for an undergraduate degree. With the changes they now pay the same fees as international students, which vary from £10,000 ($14,000) to £38,000 ($53,000) depending on the university and the degree.

In a report published last July, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), a U.K. organisation focusing on the application processes for UK universities, showed that, as of 30 June 2021, the final date to apply to up to five courses simultaneously, the number of E.U. applications dropped significantly – from 49,650 in 2020 to 28,400 in 2021 (-43%).

According to UCAS, "applications from the EU have been impacted by a range of factors, including the uncertainty associated with the UK's withdrawal from the EU, and changes to student support arrangements."

France, Germany, Spain and Italy, which traditionally dominate the list, have all recorded at least a 30 percent drop in the number of students applying to universities in the U.K.

in this first half of the year.

France, which topped the list among Europeans in 2020 with 5,130 students, this year recorded 3,600, a 30 percent drop, followed by Spain, from 4,470 in 2020 to 3,010 in 2021 (-33%), Italy, from 3,940 to 2,360 (-40%), and Germany, from 3,080 to 2,050 (-33%).

Despite not being among the countries which send the most students to the U.K., Portugal was among the Western European countries which recorded the biggest drop – from 2,410 in 2020 to 960 in 2021 (-60%).

Poland, meanwhile, sent 4,630 students to the U.K. in 2020, second only to France. In 2021, however, the country sent 1,230 students – a fall of 73 percent – thus dropping to fifth position.

Like Poland, other Eastern European countries recorded the sharpest drop in the bloc compared to last year: Romania, from 3,030 in 2020 to 1,050 in 2021 (-65%), Slovakia, from 1,010 to 270 (-74%), and Bulgaria, from 1,870 to 520 (-72%).

The same sharp drop was also recorded in the three Baltic countries: Estonia, from 390 in 2020 to 140 in 2021 (-63%), Latvia, from 630 to 210 (-67%), and Lithuania, from 1,650 to 530 (-68%).

The only exception in the European Union is Ireland, whose number of students jumped from 4,230 in 2020 to 5,260 in 2021, a 24 percent growth. Irish citizens, however, unlike all others in the European Union, have retained the right to study and to access benefits and services in the U.K. on a reciprocal basis under the Common Travel Area arrangement. This means, among other things, that Irish people remain eligible for home fee status and student loans.

On the other hand, UCAS's report showed that non-E.U.

student application numbers increased – from 89,130 in 2020 to 102,000 in 2021 (+14%). In absolute numbers, growth was led by China, from 24,430 in 2020 to 28,490 in 2021 (+17%), USA, from 5,000 to 7,650 (+53%), and India, from 7,640 to 9,930 (+30%). In proportional terms, Iraq stands out, from 40 to 70 (+95%), together with Guatemala, from 10 to 30 (+93%).

Overall, however, there was a decrease in international student applications – from 131,990 in 2019 and 138,770 in 2020 to 130,390 in 2021.

In June 2021, UCAS surveyed over 500 international students about their experiences applying to U.K. universities and higher education institutions. The survey showed that 77% of applicants from Africa and 73% from the Americas view the U.K.

as a better option compared to other countries they are considering applying to – a view shared by 52% of applicants from Central and Eastern Europe, and 53% from Western Europe.

Asked about the increase in the number of applications from non-EU foreign students, UCAS said “the impact of the introduction of the Graduate route could also be a motivating factor for non-EU applicants considering study in the UK.” Opened for applications on 1 July 2021, the new Graduate Immigration Route provides an opportunity for international students who have been awarded their degree to stay in the UK and work, or look for work, for 2 years.

According to UCAS, in their June survey of international applicants, students expressed a desire to study and work in the United Kingdom.

Future employability in the applicant’s country of study (54%) was identified as a more important factor than future employability in the applicant’s home country (37%) in making decisions about study destinations.

Check out below the main points that will affect E.U. students applying to U.K. universities and higher education institutions from August on.

Fees and loans

Before Brexit, E.U. students were entitled to pay the same fees as British and Irish students: up to £9,250 per year. However, those starting their courses from August 2021 will now pay international fees, which can be up to £38,000 per year. In addition, student loans will no longer be available.

E.U. students who started at a higher education institution by 31 July 2021, however, will still be eligible for so-called home fee status – which allows them to pay the same tuition fees as U.K.

students – and will still be able to apply for a student loan. This status is guaranteed for the duration of studies, even after August 2021.

Visa

From January 1, 2021, the British government has required E.U. students to apply for a student visa for courses of more than six months in length.

Therefore, students from the E.U. will only be able to enter the United Kingdom with this document, which costs £348 to issue. The visa application, including identity verification, can be made either through a smartphone app or through a Visa Application Center in the applicant's home country.

Health

The U.K.'s exit from the European Union also affects E.U. students’ access to the British public health service.

From now on, in order to access the U.K. National Health Service (NHS), they will need to pay a fee called Immigration Health Surcharge. However, full-time students in U.K. higher education who have a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) issued by an E.U. member state can claim a refund of the Immigration Health Surcharge.

Staying and working

From January 2021, E.U. students no longer have the right to remain and work freely in the U.K. after completing their courses. From now on, as with all other international students, E.U. students will need to apply to the new Graduate Immigration Route for the right to remain in the U.K. for two years after graduation (three years after completing a PhD) to work or seek work in any sector or at any skill level.

This period, however, is not extendable.

Erasmus

The U.K.'s exit from the European Union has also meant the end of British participation in the Erasmus exchange programme. In 2018/2019, according to European Commission data, 30,501 E.U. students went to the U.K. through the programme, while 18,305 Brits took the opposite route.

In place of the Erasmus programme, the British government announced the creation of the Turing scheme, named after the British computing pioneer Alan Turing, which will enable U.K. students to study in other countries around the world, and not only in the E.U.. The programme, however, is still in its early stages and many agreements need to be closed for it to eventually guarantee some of the benefits that E.U. students had through the Erasmus programme.