Cross-border student flows: questions of interdependence and inequality

Cross-border student flows: questions of interdependence and inequality

David Raffe and Linda Croxford, University of Edinburgh

Devolution and more recently the independence debate have brought into focus interdependencies across the territories of the UK. Higher education, as a largely devolved area of policy in Scotland, should in principle be minimally affected by further constitutional change, but in many respects higher education continues to operate in a UK-wide system. The cross-border movement of students generates important questions in this context, especially in relation to the different fee regimes in the four home countries and the different views on higher education that they reflect.  The movement of higher education students between the four home countries also provides an interesting perspective from which to consider broader issues, such as the territorial basis of social citizenship, as well as other issues specific to higher education, such as inequalities in HE participation, the factors that affect students’ decision-making and their propensity for geographical mobility.

Levels and trends in movements across borders

Just 7% of all UK full-time first-degree entrants moved between home countries in 2012-13. Had the same students been allocated at random to the same filled places, without reference to country, four times as many – 28% – would have moved. This suggests that the pressures on students to remain in their home country are stronger than the pressures to move. Devolution may have helped to reduce the scale of cross-border flows.  The devolved administrations have emphasised higher education’s contribution to the economic, social and cultural goals of the home country, and have sought closer integration with other sectors of education such as secondary schooling (Raffe 2013).  This is likely to have encouraged students to study within the home country, and the proportion doing so tended to rise following devolution (Raffe and Croxford 2013).  Policies for tuition fees have diverged, creating a growing incentive for Scottish students to study within their home country (Wakeling and Jefferies 2012, Gallacher and Raffe 2012).  In 2012-13, following the latest hike in fees in England, fewer Scottish students accepted places at English institutions than in 2011-12.

The missing element of devolution: policy coordination

Many policies in the devolved administrations have been reactive, responding to the possible effects of changes in English arrangements on the flows of students into and out of their own territory and seeking to prevent adverse effects on their own domiciles or institutions (Gallacher and Raffe 2012). A fluctuation in flows into or out of England that was small in relation to the English university system might be very substantial in relation to a supplying or receiving country, so the mere possibility of such a fluctuation makes the devolved countries vulnerable to changes in English policy and practice.  Only one per cent of English domiciled students went to Scotland to study; but in the previous year seven per cent had applied to at least one Scottish institution (Raffe and Croxford 2013), and more might have done so had the incentives been stronger – for example, had Scottish institutions offered free tuition to English as well as Scottish domiciles.  Scotland is a net importer of students from elsewhere in the UK, although it attracts nearly twice as many students from outside the UK, whose numbers have risen dramatically over the past decade and a half.

Cross-border flows also have financial implications, which may not be directly reflected in transfers of funding between the UK administrations.  Fees from RUK (rest of UK) students were expected to help to close the funding gap between Scottish and English higher education created by the fee changes in 2012  (see, Scottish Government 2010), and a working group of the UK government is reported to be assessing the financial implications for England.  Scotland currently gives priority to retaining free tuition for Scottish domiciles, but faces a challenge to maintain this distinct policy without opening up a large funding gap with English universities. Paradoxically, an independent Scotland might have even less control over its policy on tuition fees, since under EU rules it could no longer discriminate against nationals of the residual UK – a separate member state – by charging them for tuition while offering it free to Scottish students.  This interpretation is contested by the Scottish Government.

Scotland (like Wales and Northern Ireland) therefore finds its autonomy in higher education policy severely restricted; it must react to decisions taken in England.  One might have expected the UK, as a partnership of interdependent countries, to have provided a context in which the resulting conflicts and tensions could be resolved.  This has not happened.  There has been a chronic lack of inter-governmental consultation and coordination under devolution, and a lack of political will to use such measures as do exist.

Cross-border flows, social citizenship and inequality

Cross-border flows also highlight a fundamental uncertainty about the basis of social citizenship in post-devolution UK, an uncertainty exposed by the current referendum debate. Commentators have noted the apparent contradictions in public attitudes which expect common entitlements and standards of public service provision across the UK, while simultaneously respecting the right of each home country to determine these entitlements and standards for itself (Jeffery 2009).  The issues are further complicated when students from one jurisdiction seek to enjoy services provided by another.  In a multi-level political structure is the basis for social citizenship, and for defining equal rights, the home country or the UK or the European Union (EU)?  What responsibility do governments have for promoting equality among citizens of other jurisdictions?  In practice, Scottish government policy is largely focused on Scottish students in Scottish institutions.  But is this a consequence of practical considerations, or does it express underlying principles?  And if the latter, how are these principles reconciled with a third political level and source of social citizenship, the EU?

Scottish domiciles who move out of Scotland (almost all to England) are more likely to enter a Russell Group university than those who stay in Scotland, and are most likely to be studying arts or social science subjects. RUK students are distributed more unevenly across sectors and subjects within Scotland than within the other home countries, and this is more pronounced as a result of recent trends.  RUK students have declined as a proportion of all students in most sectors and subject areas in Scottish higher education, but this decline has been greatest in the newer sectors and in other subject areas, leaving the ancient universities, medicine and arts increasingly exposed as the main areas of RUK presence.

The research literature on students who cross borders indicates that not just HE policy but a wide range of factors – socio-demographic, institutional, geographical, financial, cultural – can play a role in student mobility and immobility, and there is a complex interaction among them. Nonetheless student mobility can appear in many cases to be a path followed by more advantaged students  (Whittaker, 2014).  The characteristics of those who move between England and Scotland provide support for the latter perspective. Analysis of HESA data shows that movers-in and movers-out of each home country were more likely than stayers to be under 21, to come from ‘advantaged’ social and geographical backgrounds, including a disproportionate likelihood of having attended an independent school, and to have high levels of attainment, although movers out of Scotland were as likely as stayers to be in the lowest attainment band.  Patterns by ethnicity were more complex, reflecting both the very different ethnic composition of the domiciled populations of the home countries, and the tendency of ethnic minorities in England to remain within the home country and of ethnic minorities in Scotland to leave.

Cross-border study, therefore, is associated with many of the student characteristics against which inequalities in access to higher education are measured.  Although any causal relationship is, at best, indirect, this association may make inequalities harder to address. For example, it may help to mask the extent of inequalities.  Cross-border students are often omitted from the data used to monitor HE participation and to set policy targets in each home country, with the effect that the proportion of students from under-represented or disadvantaged groups is over-estimated.  Additionally, many of the most effective measures to widen participation tend to assume a territorial frame of reference, involving collaboration or synergy in policy and practice within the same territory, leaving students who move between territories to study outside their scope.


Cross-border flows, although only representing a small percentage of HE students, raise issues of interdependence and inequality for all UK jurisdictions relevant under current devolution arrangements and with the potential for Scottish independence to add new dimensions. Addressing these issues would require greater collaboration between the respective UK governments.  However this seems unlikely as it would depend on the full participation of England, which is either the origin or destination country for most cross-border movement, but is itself only marginally touched by the issue; and the devolved administrations are reluctant to establish an arrangement which would almost certainly lead them to cede power to the dominant partner (Keating 2009).


Croxford, L and Raffe, D (2014) Student flows across the UK’s internal boundaries: entrants to full-time degree courses in 2011. Working paper 4. Project on Higher Education, the devolution settlement and the referendum on independence. University of Edinburgh.

Gallacher, J. and Raffe, D. (2012) Higher education policy in post-devolution UK: more convergence than divergence? Journal of Education Policy, 27 (4), pp. 467-490.

Jeffery, C. (2009) Devolution, public attitudes and social citizenship. In S. Greer (ed) Devolution and social citizenship in the UK. Bristol: Policy Press, pp. 73-96.

Keating, M. (2009) Social citizenship, devolution and policy divergence. In S. Greer (ed) Devolution and social citizenship in the UK. Bristol: Policy Press, pp. 97-115.

Raffe, D. (2013) Devolution and Higher Education: what next? Stimulus paper. London: Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.

Raffe, D. and Croxford, L. (2013) One system or four? Cross-border applications and entries to full-time undergraduate courses in the UK since devolution. Higher Education Quarterly, 67 (2), pp. 111-134.

Scottish Government (2010) Report of the Scottish Government – Universities Scotland Technical Group on Higher Education. Edinburgh.

Scottish Government (2013) Scotland’s future: Your guide to an independent Scotland. Edinburgh.

Wakeling, P. and Jefferies, K. (2013) The effect of tuition fees on student mobility: the UK and Ireland as a natural experiment. British Educational Research Journal, 39 (3), pp.491-513.

Whittaker, S. (2014) Student cross-border mobility within the UK: a summary of research findings. Working Paper 2. Project on Higher Education, the devolution settlement and the referendum on independence. University of Edinburgh.


David Raffe  is Professor of Sociology of Education and a member of the Centre for Educational Sociology, at the University of Edinburgh. His research interests are in secondary, further and higher education and training, transitions between education and the labour market, and policy initiatives including curriculum and qualifications reforms. Linda Croxford is Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Educational Sociology, Moray House School of Education, University of Edinburgh. The article draws on analysis undertaken under the auspices of the ESRC Fellowship Project on Higher Education in Scotland, the Devolution Settlement and the Referendum on Independence, one of nine such projects in the ESRC Programme on The Future of the UK and Scotland.