How post-Brexit international fees could change the composition of St Andrews in favour of EU students
In recent years, UK universities have accepted a high number of international students. St Andrews is particularly global — 45% of students are international and 145 nationalities are represented at the university. For these international students, St Andrews offers a prestigious, English-speaking education, and is often cheaper than local universities (at least for the significant American population in St Andrews).
Alongside these benefits, an international education at St Andrews comes with a cost - the difference in fees paid by these international students is large. A Scottish student gives the university £1820 a year, a student from the rest of the UK £9,250. An international student will pay £28,000 if they begin their course in 2023.
To ensure that this fee discrepancy does not squeeze out Scottish students, the Scottish government provides funding for a certain number of Scottish students to be admitted and through this funding pays their £1820 fee. This ensures a certain number of Scottish students are admitted, but it simultaneously limits the number of Scottish students admitted — any Scottish students above this funding limit will not be funded.
There are therefore a couple of pressures on the St Andrews admission team — financial pressure to admit overseas students, for the funding they provide, and political pressure to admit Scottish students, given the university is provided funding to admit a certain number of low-fee students.
One group that was overlooked prior to Brexit was students from the EU – they provided no financial benefit, and there was not the same concern to admit EU students as there was for domestic students. EU legislation required them to be on the same fee status as Scottish students, but there is no political pressure to give precedent to EU students as there is with domestic students.
The university does accept a significant EU population. Still, their admission has historically been hampered by their low fee status. Prior to the 2021/22 academic year, incoming EU students were still eligible for £1820 fees while higher education adapted to Brexit law changes. Pre-Brexit, EU students were eligible for the same fees as Scottish students because of freedom of movement legislation that prevents discrimination against EU nationals.
It was therefore much harder to get into St Andrews as an EU student – the university had no reason to prioritise EU applicants. According to a freedom of information request made in 2019, 559 EU students applied to do International Relations beginning in the 2018/19 academic year, and only six were offered a place at St Andrews. To show the difference higher fees made - 544 ‘overseas’ (i.e. high-fee paying) students applied for International Relations at St Andrews in 2018/19 and 374 received an offer. 15 less applications made by overseas students, but 368 more offers given than EU students.
After 2021/2022, following the post-Brexit transition period, EU students began to be classed as overseas students for the purpose of determining fee status. The fees then leapt from £1820 for pre-Brexit students to £28,000 for 2023 undergraduate entrants. Suddenly, St Andrews has become expensive for EU students and EU students have become profitable for St Andrews.
Higher EU fees incentivises the university to admit EU students, thereby lifting them on the list of admission priorities. The increased financial incentive to admit EU students levels the playing field between EU students and students from other overseas nationalities – there is no longer any financial reason for the university to admit a student from further afield. The university may therefore begin to see more students from the EU begin to be admitted. High quality candidates that were otherwise ignored have a greater chance of admission.
The contrary effect of the fee change is that it may prove to be a disincentive for EU students to apply, given the radically increased cost. The win-win situation for American students, whereby the cost of St Andrews is comparatively cheaper than local universities, does not apply to EU students. St Andrews is much more expensive than universities on the continent — many universities are totally free for EU students.
Higher fees test St Andrews ability to attract EU students – will the rise in prestige from higher league table rankings prove sufficient to draw applications, despite a large rise in tuition fees? Lund University in Sweden, comparable to St Andrews in the QS World Rankings 2023, is free for EU students. Does St Andrews therefore hold enough sway for EU students to pay £112,000 for a four-year degree, when universities comparable in the league tables are free?
Assuming that it does, the proportion of EU to non-EU international students could change. Perhaps there will be fewer Americans in town, and the population will be more continental.
Or perhaps the size of the overall international community will grow. The international population is 45% at the moment, but with good EU applicants now paying more, there will be temptation to increase this percentage. This temptation is especially great given the post-Covid funding struggles of UK universities. This could lead to non-Scottish British students being squeezed out at the expense of international students. Again, if two equivalent applications are given to St Andrews, someone from France who will pay £28,000 a year, and someone from England paying £9250, there is great incentive to offer a place to the French applicant.
If recent years have anything to tell us, perhaps the most likely outcome is the university over-recruiting students, squeezing as many people into the town as possible to ensure adequate university funding. Adding more EU students on high fees without reducing the admission of other students simply gives the university more money.
There is one significant benefit for Scottish students – given EU students are no longer funded by the Scottish government, low-fee places that would have gone to EU students will now be able to be allocated to Scottish students. Therefore, a rise in EU students may mean an increase in the number of Scottish students at St Andrews, as government funding is diverted from EU students to Scots.
It is likely that we will see higher numbers of EU students at St Andrews in the coming years. But beyond this, it is hard to see exactly how the composition will shift. It may be that there are fewer international students from elsewhere, or fewer students from the UK, or perhaps the university will continue to over-recruit and admit more and more students into the university.