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Could online study help reduce the impact of Brexit on UK universities?

“There’s never been a more important time for UK universities to nurture their international student population,” wrote the Guardian’s Higher Education Network’s Ruth Stokes at the start of this academic year.

Highlighting the detrimental impact of Brexit on EU applications, an increasingly competitive global higher education market and the Government’s approach to immigration deterring potential students from outside the EU, she argues that UK universities are now having to make significant efforts to improve the international student experience and ensure ongoing “recruitment and retention.”

In recent years, the UK has proudly welcomed high numbers of students from all over the world. HESA figures released in 2017 showed that 20% of students enrolled in UK Higher Education institutions during the 2015/2016 academic year came from outside the UK, with over a third of those at postgraduate level coming from non-EU countries.

It seems that despite a fall in the number of students from India, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria enrolling since 2011/2012, there has been a significant rise in students enrolling from China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia in the same timeframe. Additionally, the number of those coming from across the EU was up by 2% in 2015/2016 compared to the previous year, with an increase in students from countries such as France, Spain, Italy, Romania and Poland.

Yet, one big grey cloud has loomed over us since June 2016 - one whose impact remains to be seen: Brexit.

We are now living in a post-referendum world, filled with uncertainty about how the UK’s withdrawal will affect visas and fees for EU students, as well as immigration more generally. It does seem likely that UK institutions will have to consider how they can continue to attract students from overseas. 

However, could online degrees go someway to reducing the effects of Brexit?

We have already seen an increase in the number of students registered at a UK Higher Education Institution but studying overseas in recent years. In 2015/2016, a total of 113,995 students were partaking in distance learning offshore to gain a UK qualification. Unsurprisingly, residents from non-EU countries were learning online in larger numbers with the top three locations being Singapore, Hong Kong and Nigeria.

However, could we see more EU students enrolling in distance learning in the next few years? It would certainly seem a good move for individuals to consider if they are seeking a UK education.

Despite some people’s reservations, online study at an accredited institution allows international students to enjoy the high quality research, vast resources and excellent teaching that have ensured UK universities are ranked amongst the best in the world.

As well as this, programmes provide similar content to their onsite counterparts, ongoing student support and see students gaining the same qualifications as those who have studied on campus - all without the need to leave their home country.

In fact, online learning can provide additional benefits to on-campus degrees: the chance to interact with like-minded students from all over the world - people who are living in different countries, facing different challenges and can bring different experiences to the peer group, which will only serve to enhance the learning environment.

No one knows what the future holds for international students in the UK. However, introducing innovative, practical ways for students overseas to achieve a UK qualification without the need to relocate could provide a ray of light amidst the uncertainty of Brexit.

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