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Head of Brexit Advisory Unit cautions: 'The issue of being able to attract and retain talent to work and study in universities is absolutely paramount'

The UK’s higher education sector faces “a period of uncertainty” as almost a third of international students say they are less likely to study in Britain in the wake of the Brexit result because the country feels “less welcoming.”

According to a survey from a student recruitment consultancy, Hobsons, 30 per cent said they were not likely to come to the UK, while six per cent said they would definitely not choose Britain as a study destination as a result of the EU referendum.

Asked for alternative study destinations, 32 per cent of the 1,014 respondents said they would choose Canada, 21 per cent chose Germany, while 20 per cent showed an interest in heading to either an American or Australian university.

The respondents - of which 83 per cent were from outside the EU - were asked what UK universities could do to allay students’ concerns. The need for reassurance was reflected in a number of their comments. One said: “If UK universities could consider the volatility of the exchange rate for international students when determining the cost of attendance, adding extra funds as a kind of safety net, or introducing a programme that allows for an increase at a later disbursement - or some similar idea - that would put my mind at ease.”

Another added: “Assure students the fact they no longer belong to the EU doesn’t mean progress will not continue. Try to make admission easy for students coming in and assuring them their stay throughout would be non-stressful.”

Total income from non-EU international students in 2014/15 represented around 26 per cent of all income reported by English institutions. By 2017/18, the Higher Education Funding Council for England said the sector expects this to grow to £4.6 billion, a two per cent increase.

Despite their somewhat negative perception of British universities, though, 43 per cent did say they felt the pound becoming weaker against their home currency would make a UK degree less expensive.

Jeremy Cooper, managing director of Hobsons, said universities in the UK are facing “a period of uncertainty” post-Brexit, adding: “However, international students still represent a significant strategic opportunity for UK universities.

“Market conditions for international student recruitment look set to toughen, and universities need to send a clear message that the UK welcomes international students, as well as providing practical guidance and support.”

Political consultancy Inline Policy, which has launched a Brexit Advisory Unit to work together with universities to advise them on how best to engage with the Government on the policy and regulatory issues that will affect them in a post-Brexit environment, responded to the survey. Head of the unit, William Bain, said: “With 125,000 non-UK EU nationals studying here, and 43,000 non-UK EU nationals working in higher education institutions, the issue of being able to attract and retain talent to work and study in universities is absolutely paramount.

Theresa May admits future of EU citizens living in the UK is uncertain

“The future direction and scale of involvement in policies on the free movement of workers and other EU nationals, like students, will have a real impact on funding, strategic positioning, economic performance, and the global reputation of UK higher education in the coming years. More restrictive UK immigration policy towards international students, co-operation on research and development projects, and whether the UK could continue to be involved in areas such as Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020, are all key areas which need to be addressed.”

Hobsons’ survey has come as around 100 EU students have reportedly cancelled their places at Aberystwyth University in Wales amid concerns of the impact of Brexit. Although the acting vice-chancellor of the institution told BBC News about half of those pulled out the day after the Brexit vote, a university spokesperson told the Independent it was too early to come to any final conclusions on what the potential impact of Brexit will be.

The spokesperson added: “We are pleased we have been able to reassure prospective EU students in our communications with them that we are looking forward to welcoming them.”

Some of the UK’s top universities have also reportedly faced issues working with their European partners, including being asked to leave EU-funded projects, according to a confidential survey of the elite Russell Group universities carried out by the Guardian.

University leaders from across Europe, however, have come together in a “turbulent time” to stress the importance of continued higher education collaboration following the UK’s vote to leave. Signing a joint statement, the leaders from over 20 countries - including Germany and France - highlighted the importance of international cooperation and exchange, and insisted universities are strongest when they tackle issues collaboratively.

Dame Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of the University of Kent, said: “It is important we get long-term guarantees that the UK will continue to benefit from opportunities to collaborate with partners on ground-breaking research. We are determined the UK university sector will remain a welcoming destination, open and internationally engaged, and a high-quality partner of choice.”

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