What Brexit would mean for EU students and the graduate labour force is a complicated question. The process of negotiating a British exit from the EU would create a period of significant uncertainty and could well make the UK a less desirable place to study during the period of transition.
And a vote to leave the EU could also have an impact on the level of skilled labour in the UK work force.
Around 23% of university graduates living in the UK in 2014 were born abroad and a third of these were born in the European Union, according to our estimates using the 2014 Labour Force Survey. Many of these graduates will have come to the UK after finishing their degrees. But a sizeable proportion are likely to have arrived as students: 16% of the working age immigrant population in the UK originally arrived for study, and more than half of these have at least one UK degree.
Our new research analysed what 2m graduates did six months after leaving university by looking at responses to the Higher Education Statistics Authority’s Destination of Leavers from Higher Education survey between 2003-4 and 2011-12. We found that EU-domiciled students (whose home country is in an EU-member state) comprise 8% of the students in postgraduate taught programs, 13% in postgraduate research, and 5% of all undergraduates.
Among those pursuing postgraduate research degrees (mostly PhDs), two thirds of EU students were concentrated in highly desired science, technology, engineering or maths (STEM) fields. In 2011-12 alone, 5,446 EU undergraduates and 6,941 EU postgraduates in the UK graduated with a STEM degree.
EU graduates in the workforce
Besides constituting a sizeable proportion of graduates, EU domiciled students go on to contribute to the UK economy: more than half remain in the country six months after graduation.
And those who stay perform very well, particularly at the undergraduate level. We found that EU domiciled undergraduates who remain in the UK are six percentage points more likely to have a first class degree than British students within STEM fields, and nine percentage points more likely to have a first within non-STEM fields.
Comparing EU and UK graduates within the same institutions, with the same subject of study and at the same level of performance, we found that EU-domiciled undergraduates are between 26 and 30 percentage points more likely to continue to study and are less likely to be unemployed. Those who stay in the UK are also more likely to be in a job that matches their training.
EU-domiciled postgraduates also perform well, with success in the job market similar to or better than British postgraduates, even after adjusting for university characteristics and subject of study.
EU-domiciled postgraduates are more likely than British postgraduates to continue in full-time education. Postgraduates in research programs who remain in the UK are also between nine and 12 percentage points more likely to be in jobs where their training is required or is expected for their job, than to be in a job where their training is not required – something that is often taken as a marker of over-qualification.
EU students at UK universities are clearly the best and brightest in their class. On the whole, their achievements outstrip their British classmates and they represent a significantly well-qualified group of graduate workers entering the UK workforce. These highly skilled, top-class graduates are likely to have a very positive impact on UK industry.
Should UK voters decide to leave the EU, the uncertainty of the situation – particularly in any short-term transition period – could discourage EU students from coming to the UK for study, from staying on to pursue further degrees or to work in the country following their graduation.