The post-Brexit collapse in EU student recruitment is threatening course sustainability at world-famous institutions such as the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS), according to higher education (HE) leaders.

Universities Scotland (US), which represents institutions north of the Border, is calling on ministers to plough nearly £20 million annually into a Wales-style, EU-focused exchange scheme that would boost inward mobility and help improve the situation.

UCAS data published in August showed that, while extra-EU recruitment was holding up better than expected, the number of individuals from the bloc who were placed on 2021/22 courses had plunged 56 per cent compared with the previous session.

Following Brexit, EU students without settled or pre-settled status face paying much higher tuition fees. They are also no longer eligible for UK student loans. Observers say this has hit recruitment hard, particularly in poorer continental states. It is feared the drop, combined with an insufficient flow of Scottish learners in some subjects, poses a major sustainability threat to courses.

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US bosses have welcomed the recent announcement of a £2.25m scholarship programme to support citizens from the bloc who would like to come to Scotland. However, in a submission released as Holyrood ministers prepare the 2022/23 budget and medium-term financial strategy, they say there should be a multi-year commitment to both scholarships and a “new mobility scheme” that will provide opportunities for “reciprocal movement” of Scottish-domiciled and EU students. They expect the arrangement to require total financial input of £19.7m per annum.

The US submission also warns that the collapse in recruitment from the bloc “diminishes the student experience for home students and creates particular problems for sustaining Scottish universities’ provision in subjects where EU students have been a major part of the student body, particularly in STEM and creative subjects”.

It comes after Boris Johnson’s government decided to end UK participation in the EU’s Erasmus+ programme. British ministers have since launched a replacement called the Turing Scheme, which has been at the centre of a row about whether it helps or hinders those looking to undertake overseas study.

The UK Government claims Turing will boost its “Global Britain” and “levelling up” agendas by making a greater number of opportunities available to poorer students. But critics insist the programme is inferior to Erasmus+. They say it is focused on outward mobility, fails to offer the same level of reciprocity to inbound students, does not provide research/partnership funding and leaves out teaching staff.

HeraldScotland: Graduates celebrate at the Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow, but numbers of students from the EU are down.Graduates celebrate at the Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow, but numbers of students from the EU are down.

Alastair Sim, US director, told The Herald that falling EU student numbers had created significant pressures within HE departments. He said: “To give you a couple of examples… one – [in the] various engineering disciplines, there isn’t the flow of learners from Scottish schools with high level quantified skills – absolutely top-level Highers, for instance, in maths – that you might hope for. And so there’s been some really great engineering courses that have been quite reliant on EU recruitment to sustain them.

“Another example is the Conservatoire (RCS), which does a great job in reaching out to and recruiting Scottish students but, again, there is an issue with not enough students, particularly students from the more disadvantaged backgrounds, being supported to take an instrument to a high level in Scottish schools. So their aspirations to recruit as many Scottish students as you’d need to sustain a course are constrained. They’ve been enriched by having the EU students sustaining their courses alongside Scottish students.”

He added: “Basically, we’re approaching this from the point of view that the Turing Scheme is kind of working for outward mobility but it’s not as rich a scheme as we previously had. So, for instance, the inward mobility of EU students isn’t covered by it.”

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A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “In the last year we have sadly seen a dramatic reduction in applications from EU students looking to study here – we are determined to do all we can to reverse the damage caused by Brexit and promote Scotland’s education offer globally.

"We remain committed to Erasmus+ and are exploring how to re-secure Scotland’s access to it. In the interim we are developing a Scottish Education Exchange Programme to support participants from across Scotland’s education system.”

A spokesman for the UK Government’s Department for Education said: “The Turing Scheme is providing over £7 million to universities, schools and colleges across Scotland this year, so students from all backgrounds can take up life-changing work and study placements.”