Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Brexit - bad news for conservatoires

A lot of people within the HE sector are shocked by the Brexit vote, and the impact is beginning to be felt. Individually, people on both sides of the issue will take time to adjust, but it’s important for institutional leaders to get quickly beyond the shock and think about how Brexit will affect them.

One obvious concern relates to students from other EU countries. Presently, such students are able to access student loans company funding, and are treated the same as students in the home nation for fees purposes. (This latter point gives some curious results: Scottish universities charge zero fees to Scottish domiciled students, and £9k for students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Students from other EU countries are treated the same as Scottish students, paying zero fees.)

There’s obviously big uncertainty about what happens in the future. In the short term, current EU students, and those who start in 2016-17, will continue on the same terms and conditions. Beyond this, there isn’t certainty yet. And so universities need to start contingency planning. (It’s all in the negotiations. An EEA-type outcome may include special dispensation for students, but that is simply an unknown.)

At some point it seems possible that EU students will be treated the same as any other overseas student. If that were to happen, we could expect EU student numbers to decline. Universities will need to respond, and there are fundamentally two choices – replace the ‘lost’ EU students with others, or admit fewer students. So what is the scale of the challenge, and who is most affected?

EU undergraduates comprise over 5% of the current (2014-15 HESA data) Home/EU undergraduate population. Scotland has the highest proportion – perhaps unsurprisingly as EU students pay no tuition fees – but London is not far behind.

It is reasonable to assume that some universities at least will try to make up the shortfall with UK students, and that means greater competition. Universities with stronger recruitment profiles will admit students who may have gone elsewhere, and universities which recruit less strongly will have to admit students they otherwise would not have, if they wish to remain the same size. This may not always be possible. In London this competition will possibly be intense – the number of EU students in the region - almost 17000 - is larger than most universities’ total student intakes.

It’s also useful to look at the impact on individual universities. In absolute terms, the ten universities with the most EU undergraduates are:

The three Scottish universities are unsurprising, and the differences in Scottish university finance probably mean that in purely financial terms the loss will be less significant for them than if they were in England. But the English universities in the list vary in character, some being very strong recruiters, others less so.

In proportionate terms, another issues arises. Here’s the ten institutions with the greatest percentage reduction, if EU students are lost:

This list includes the four London conservatoires – specialist music institutions – and the broader performing arts conservatoire which is the Conservatoire for Dance and Drama. These institutions don’t have a normal recruitment pattern. To gain admittance you have to already be a very capable musical performer. The number of lost students is greater than the total intake at two of these institutions. It is hard to see how the conservatoires could remain at their current size without EU students. And they probably aren't big enough to easily survive such large changes in tuition fee income.

Here is, I suspect, the first unanticipated and unintended consequence of Brexit: there’ll be fewer conservatoires. To avoid this, increased governmental support will be needed. Which won’t be straightforward in the more straitened times we face.

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