The number of students from European Union countriesapplying to British universities has jumped by 11 per cent - the highest number on record – as worries ahead of the referendum vote led to a scramble for places.
EU students have access to lower fees and student loans but there are fears they could lose their benefits when Brexit takes place.
According to figures released by Ucas, there are now 26,800 EU students placed at universities as experts feared the number of those leaving the country without paying their loans back at their end of their degrees could rise.
Despite a steady rise in the number of EU students being accepted into British universities, the number of UK students entering higher education jumped by just 3 per cent this year.
While EU students are entitled to similar benefits as home students, it is not possible to make sure they pay back their loans once they return to their countries. Many students from the EU have in fact disappeared recently without repaying their loans, leaving the UK taxpayer to foot their bill.
Education experts said many new applicants from the EU to British higher education would have made their decision in light of the Brexit vote.
Others warned the backlog of debt is set to grow even further as the number of EU students continues to rise.
They argued this is because of the likelihood of the rules being renegotiated so EU nationals will no longer be able to enjoy the same benefits and will be liable to higher fees like international students are.
The new figures followed calls from think tanks saying EU students should be ‘treated like criminals’ and detained at the border if they owed more than 30 per cent in a year. Research showed that roughly 11 per cent or 8,600 EU students are currently in arrears after their graduation.
Alan Smithers, professor of education at the University of Buckingham, said: “Going to a UK university is a very attractive proposition for EU students.
“There is no upfront payment for university tuition and once they’ve moved to another part of the world it is more difficult to recover the loans that were given to them.
“UK universities are known for their excellence and so they are attractive in their own right but the referendum would have prompted students who were thinking of coming to this country from Europe to do so sooner rather than later in case the vote was to leave.” Education experts said the jump in EU applicants could also be explained to the lift in the numbers capped which took place for the first time last year, meaning universities can take in as many students as they want.
As a result of EU law, European students have access to the same taxpayer-backed tuition fee loans as UK students.
Under government plans governments could soon exchange tax data with other EU countries and send debt collectors to recover funds from offenders.
Earlier this year, the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) said those EU students who don’t repay their loans, which are backed by British taxpayers, should be treated like tax evaders. At the time, Nick Hillman, director of HEPI, said: “Tax evasion and benefit fraud rip taxpayers off.
“Defaulting on your student loan could be regarded as just as bad. Yet it is fairly common among both Brits and EU citizens who study in the UK before working abroad.
“Given that the £9,000 fees regime is now maturing and that postgraduate loans are being introduced, a new repayment regime for those living overseas should be a more urgent priority than ever before.”