Overseas Applications to UK Law Schools Increase Despite Brexit

Demand from India, China and Thailand surges thanks to the reintroduction of a post-study work visa, but EU applications are hit by the impending end of freedom of movement

Queen Mary University of London is one of many top UK law schools enjoying an increase in LL.M. applications from non-EU students. The institution has seen significant growth, between 25 percent and 45 percent, in applications from India, China and Thailand for the September 2020 LL.M. intake.

The rise in demand is attributed to factors including the UK government rolling back tough immigration curbs and pledging to reinstate a two-year post-study work visa for overseas students from outside the EU.

Another factor is the growing protectionism in the US, where visa rules have been tightened under the Donald Trump administration, whose anti-immigrant rhetoric is also a problem for US law schools.  

“Increased interest from the rest of the world is partly driven by pull factors, such as the UK government’s announcement of its intention to reintroduce the visa, and partly by countries such as the US becoming a less appealing destination,” says professor Ian Walden, head of Queen Mary’s Center for Commercial Law Studies.

Brexit: storm clouds on the horizon?

More global applications have been the positive upside to Brexit for UK law schools. But there are storm clouds on the horizon, not least the end of freedom of movement when the UK’s Brexit transition period ends on 31 December 2020. At that point EU students may be charged the same higher fees as non-EU students. 

The prospect of higher fees has already proved a deterrent for some EU students, with applications from this contingent falling at Queen Mary’s law school. “The response from EU applicants seems unsurprising given the uncertainties and machinations over the future of the UK in the EU,” says Walden. 

The newly elected UK government has agreed to introduce a “points-based” immigration system meant to prioritize higher-paid, more valuable workers. This should be good news for LL.M. students, at least those who will have no problem meeting the annual salary threshold of £25,600 after the post-Brexit transition period. 

But while this should further buoy non-EU applications, law schools are still uncertain over what impact Brexit could have on their institutions, especially their ability to attract and retain talented professors and win EU research funding. 

“It may lead to a permanent decline in student numbers from the EU; it may be more difficult to attract outstanding academic staff from the EU; and we may experience reduced access to EU research funding,” says Walden. 

UK LL.M. programs no longer ‘cheap’ options due to a stabilized pound

In the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote in 2016, the plunge in the value of the pound made UK courses appear relatively cheap to overseas students. With the currency stabilizing, however, UK law schools can no longer rely on this to draw in students in the years ahead. 

“We experienced an increase in enrolments in 2017 from non-EU markets partly down to the weakness of the pound following the June 2016 referendum. However, the ‘weak’ pound has now been normalized so has less of a direct impact on our 2020 position,” says Lee Wildman, director of global engagement at Queen Mary’s law school. 

To mitigate the loss of EU students, the university has increased the size of its marketing and recruitment teams in Beijing and Delhi, and is opening a regional office in Kuala Lumpur to help grow applications from southeast Asia. 

But at the Dickson Poon School of Law at King’s College in London, applications from EU students have been stable so far. Andrea Biondi, professor of EU law and director at the Center of European Law, puts this down to King’s strong international reputation and partnerships with universities across Europe, in Berlin and Paris. 

Another upside to Brexit for law students is that knowledge of the complicated problems caused by the EU exit may make them more employable when they graduate, amid the boom times for the British legal market. 

The top 100 law firms in the UK enjoyed an £8bn rise in revenue and added 21,000 lawyers to their payroll in 2018, as Brexit heightened demand for legal advice on regulation, restructuring, employment and intellectual property law. 

“An LL.M. is a very good way to increase your knowledge in specialist areas of law and so can enhance your CV considerably,” says Peter Hungerford-Welch, head of professional programs and associate dean at the City Law School in London. 

The institution launched a lecture on Brexit in its EU law course and has hosted debates on the impact of Brexit. This helped students understand geopolitical events globally and get comfortable with adapting to a changing world, with many trade agreements being renegotiated, for instance in the US. 

The negotiation of greatest concern for UK law schools will be on Britain’s future relationship with the EU. They will be watching developments closely and lobbying to protect their interests. 

The risks are great, but so are the opportunities. Ultimately, whatever the outcome of Brexit, it seems unlikely to roll back decades of academic excellence. 

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