Will Brexit cause British universities to lose their lustre among UAE students?

Students from the UAE say uncertainty surrounding Britain's EU departure may affect the decision to study there

MET9R6 UCL Students in Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, London UK in the spring sunshine
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Pupils across the UAE are nervously awaiting their A-level results on August 15, in the hope they have made the grade to attend their dream university.

While some will choose to attend local universities in the UAE or abroad to Europe, North America and Australia, a major destination is the UK — which enrols about 3,000 students from the UAE every year.

The country's impending exit from the European Union has raised questions about whether the UK will remain such an attractive option for them.

Sharjah resident Shouq Al Naqbi hopes to one day work at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She has just completed her first year of undergraduate studies in international relations at Queen Mary University of London.

Some of my friends ask me if it is safe to study here. They are afraid of protests but I tell them that the protests here are well-organised and there is nothing to worry about

Ms Al Naqbi moved to the UK two years after the 2016 referendum and, is happy with her decision to study in London. However, she  is concerned Brexit may deter younger generations of Emiratis from applying.

She told The National some of her peers at home were put off after reading reports of political instability as a result of the Brexit vote.,

“Some of my friends ask me if it is safe to study here. They are afraid of protests but I tell them that the protests here are well-organised and there is nothing to worry about,” she said.

Another potential headache is rankings. Though this year's QS rankings show that the UK has four of the top ten universities in the world, many including Cambridge have tumbled in international league tables since 2016.

“Scholarship providers in the UAE always want us to study in the top universities. If the UK universities keep dropping in the rankings then they might stop us going there,” she said.

PhD student Abdulla Al Shaikh first came to the UK in 2011 to study for a master's degree in communication and diplomacy in London. He finished his undergraduate studies at the American University in Dubai.

When Mr Al Shaikh was studying for his masters, he was impressed by the world class educational facilities that the UK had to offer, the economic strength of the country and a positive experience.  When he  had to choose where to complete his doctorate in Diplomacy and International Security in 2015, the decision was clear.

“I came to the UK because the institutions are very well known here. The experience you get from both the students and the teaching staff is first-class,” he said.

But the Brexit vote has left him feeling uncertain about the future for the British university system and whether it will still attract top class international students and teaching staff.

LONDON 12th March 2016. Dubai students studying in the UK from left; Amira Jassim (28), Maitha Al Awadi (26) and Beshayer Alrum (25) at the UAE-UK Pioneers Forum in London. Stephen Lock for the National  *** Local Caption ***  SL-forum-006.JPG

Students from the EU are able to enrol in British university programmes and pay the same reduced fees as domestic students, subsidised by the British government. The same rule applies for British students studying in the EU.

When the UK leaves the bloc as, scheduled on October 31, EU students will likely lose the fee subsidies and pay the same rate as international students from outside Europe.

As an Emirati, the fee change for EU nationals will not directly affect Abdulla but he is still concerned.

“While the knowledge gained from studying in the UK should remain the same, the experience of studying with and learning from EU nationals is what makes the academic social fabric so special,” he said.

Research by British-based think tank Higher Education Policy Institute has predicted that the number of students coming from the EU could be cut by half.

Mr Al Shaikh is also concerned about what policies the British government will take up after Brexit. An isolationist policy, he said, may reduce  student and work visas available.

There are fears among some anti-Brexit campaigners that there could be an exodus of businesses resulting in fewer opportunities for students after they have finished their studies.

“Most of the world-leading organisations have headquarters here, after Brexit will they still be around or will they consider relocating?” he said.

He is worried that institutions would struggle financially as a result of losing EU research funding and would feel more severely the effects of an economic downturn caused by leaving the bloc.

“As I study diplomacy, I frequently travel to the UN either in Geneva or in New York, as well as other international organisations. Often this is paid for by university scholarships, which I do not think they would offer after Brexit,” he said.

For Mr Al Shaikh, who hopes to complete his PhD this year, studying in the UK is about more than just getting a degree, it is about making friends and connecting with people across the world.

“Diversity is so important,” he said.

“To meet great minds from all over the world, to learn about their countries directly from them, share knowledge and experiences with them, as individuals and academics, is part of how you grow and continue to learn as an individual.”