Over four years after the referendum result, and eight months after the United Kingdom has technically left the European Union, it is still too soon to be certain of the financial consequences for British passport holders looking to study at EU universities from 2021 onwards. While most countries in Europe have guaranteed students who are resident before 31st December 2020 that there will be no cliff edge for them, for those students moving after that date the indications are that there will be significant change both in terms of tuition fees and access to student finance but nothing is certain. We have spent a lot of time this summer updating all the programmes on our A Star Future and Study in Holland websites to reflect the probable new reality.
Student finance arrangements are largely reciprocal. If the UK treats EU nationals the same as any third-country nationals post-Brexit then EU member states will most probably do likewise with UK nationals. The extent to which this will mean a change in the terms and conditions British students face will largely depend on the way non-EU students are treated in individual European countries as they are all free to set their own conditions for such students.
In this article we will attempt to summarise the situation for British students looking to enter EU universities for the purposes of taking a full Bachelor’s degree in the English language. The conditions are likely to be very similar for those seeking Master’s degrees where the English-taught choice is significantly wider. In some countries, the lack of degrees taught in English makes this a largely theoretical exercise but at the start of this new era in UK-EU relations we thought it best to try to cover most of the major European countries. We will not address any changes to the terms and conditions relating to university exchanges and any form of mobility that does not lead to obtaining a full degree abroad.
In some countries there are far more opportunities to study in English at private universities and where appropriate we will also touch on some expected changes here. However, private universities are generally free to set their own terms and conditions, as well as tuition fees, meaning that they rarely offer an accurate illustration of national policy.
In the absence of any detail about the UK’s future relationship with the European Union we are assuming in all cases that British students will be treated identically with all other non-EU students although it is entirely possible that any agreement on our future relationship could change this.
Where will Brexit make no or little difference to British students?
The first country to consider is Norway, a member of the EEA but not the EU. Here, all students are treated the same and there are no tuition fees for anyone, no matter their nationality. Students in Norway need to demonstrate they have the funds to support themselves meaning that UK parents might need a hefty bank balance in order to meet the requirements to obtain a student visa. The number of Bachelor’s degrees on offer in English at Norwegian public universities just about reaches double figures so it is unlikely that there will be explosive growth in the number of Brits seeking to go to university there.
Germany is perhaps the best example of a country where tuition fees are the same for everyone enrolling at public universities. However, of the roughly 235 Bachelor’s degrees taught in English that we have been able to identify, only 35 are taught at public universities. Of these 10 are in Baden-Wuerttemburg where tuition fees of €3,000 per year have recently been introduced for non-EU students. It is possible that other German states will follow in this direction.
Other countries where Brexit will see little change in tuition fees for British students include France, Austria and Belgium. However, the choice of degrees on offer in France at public universities is even less than in Norway. In Austria and Belgium, fees are higher for non-EU nationals but there is little difference in the fees charged by research universities. Fees at Universities of Applied Sciences are noticeably higher in both of these countries, typically around €6,000 a year.
Where is Brexit not really the reason for differential fees?
In many European countries, particularly in Central Europe, the distinction of nationality or residency is not that important when it comes to determining the price of a degree. Here, the concept of an international student is less important than whether or not a degree programme is designated international. Essentially this means that if a degree is taught in English it attracts different tuition fees than if it were in the local language and this distinction is far more important than a student’s place of origin.
This means, for example, that if a British national were capable of studying in Polish at a Polish university they would not have to pay tuition fees. Obviously the likelihood that such a British student did not also possess another passport or were not already resident in Poland is extremely small. Even if there were many students who could take advantage of this, entry requirements often make it extremely difficult for them to benefit. Besides Poland, this is also the situation in Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia and the Baltic States.
Inasmuch as this affects British students it is typically in the health science subjects of medicine, dentistry and veterinary medicine. However, there are also quite a number of options in science and engineering although these tend to be aimed more at international students from Russia, India and China and very rarely appeal to Brits. Fees on international programmes are typically between €1,500 and €4,500 for business and engineering degrees but medicine can be as much as €12,000 at Charles University in Prague and at several Polish universities.
Where will Brexit have the biggest impact?
The impact of Brexit will be felt most in the countries that have the widest range of suitable, attractive options for British students and not just a handful of degrees in health sciences or a small number of prestigious private universities. This means Finland, Sweden and Denmark but, above all, the Netherlands.
Norway is now the only country that still offers free tuition to anyone from anywhere but until relatively recently so did Denmark, Sweden and Finland. In recent years they have introduced tuition fees for non-EU nationals and while British nationals will continue to be exempted if they are resident in these countries before 31st December 2020, for those moving after that date the higher fees will apply.
Annual tuition fees in all three countries are variable by subject and by university but generally in a range between £5,500 and £14,500 in Denmark, £7,000 and £17,000 in Sweden (although fine art and music degrees can be significantly more), £4,500 and £11,000 in Finland. Depending on a British student’s choice of subject it could still be cheaper to study in all of these countries than it currently is in the United Kingdom but it is certainly significantly more expensive than it was before the Brexit impact.
In Finland many universities offer partial fee waivers for international students who confirm their place and pay within the published deadlines. These can reduce the fees by 50% and occasionally more and can continue into later years if students make the required progress.
Any access to student finance in these countries that British nationals enjoyed pre-Brexit will end for anyone who is not already resident before the expiration of the transition period.
In the Netherlands the tuition fees will also change. Prior to Brexit, British students were funded at Dutch universities in the same way as all other EU nationals. Tuition fees for EU students are best described as a contribution towards the cost of their education. In 2021/22 this contribution will be €2,168 for nearly all Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. This contribution is topped up by the government to meet the actual cost of educating students in their chosen field. Post-Brexit, UK nationals will have to make up the amount of the subsidy in the same way as all other non-EU students. At the same time, their access to the Dutch Student Finance system will cease. This means there will no longer be any loans available for tuition fees and the system whereby students working part-time can access living cost support will also cease. This rather than the level of non-EU fees is likely to have the biggest impact on British students’ ability to afford to study in Holland.
Non-EU tuition fees in the Netherlands are modest by UK standards, typically in a range between £5,500 and £13,500 per year. Unlike in Denmark and Sweden it is easier to work out the tuition fee directly from the subject and type of higher education institution with Universities of Applied Sciences cheaper than research universities and arts degrees tuition fees lower than science and engineering. Medicine degrees clearly fall outside this range with annual tuition fees of over £30,000. In many respects, international fees at Dutch follow the same distribution as can be found in British universities although with less distortion by prestige.
Prior to Brexit, we estimated the annual total cost of studying in the Netherlands at around £11,000. Post Brexit it will be a minimum of £15,000 but probably closer to £20,000 for the most popular options for British students. These amounts still compare favourably with the anticipated cost of a similar education at a British university but the absence of student finance will unfortunately put it beyond the reach of many.
Will British students be able to access financial support post-Brexit?
There are more scholarships available for non-EU students than for EU students. However, it is not yet clear if this will all be available to UK students. In some countries, scholarships are used as a means of supporting students from less developed countries. In Italy, for example, tuition fees are often lower for non-EU students but it is unlikely this will benefit British students.
In some countries means-testing is used to determine tuition fees for EU students. It is unlikely that this will continue post-Brexit.
Even if British nationals are able to benefit from scholarships it is extremely unlikely that this would cover the likely increase in tuition fees. The Holland Scholarship might perhaps become available to British students but this amounts to €5,000 for the first year of Bachelor’s or Master’s study only. Typically scholarships are more likely to be available to Master’s students or at private universities where they are unlikely to offset the cost increase resulting from the removal of EU status.
In conclusion, there is little good news to take from the removal of EU membership for British students in terms of tuition fees and funding arrangements at EU universities. It is possible that this situation will be mitigated by future negotiation but this will be of little use to those students planning their futures now.
The European Union is by no means the most expensive place to look for an English-taught higher education and could still offer cost-effective options for British students. However, it cannot be denied that these options are now fewer and further between. We have already seen a huge growth in the number of UK residents applying to EU universities using a different passport. If this option is available to you, it makes perfect sense to insulate yourself from the effects of Brexit.