What does the future hold for small and specialist creative institutions in the international landscape?

London Higher’s newly published International Education Strategy for London (IESL) seeks to support providers across the capital to focus their international strategies. London HE is diverse; it is home to research-intensive universities, small specialists, London ‘centres’ and post-1992 institutions. Despite their number and the significant contribution they make, London’s small specialists can all-too-easily become footnotes in discussions of a higher education landscape that focus on multi-faculty institutions’ situations and needs.  

With their (often hyper-) focused curricula, London’s creative specialists (including its many conservatoires) serve vibrant international communities. This is clear whether we look at raw student numbers (over 10,000 at the University of the Arts London in 2020-21) or proportion of overall student body (45% at the Royal Academy of Music). 


What is the current picture? 

Applications to our creative arts institutions from Europe have decreased since the UK left the EU, UCAS statistics make clear. Across UK higher education as a whole, applications from the EU dropped by roughly 40% between 2020 and 2021, and London’s creative specialists are likely to feel this change acutely. Meanwhile, applications from outside the EU have risen. A change in the balance of where students apply from now puts London’s institutions in the company of a different set of international competitors.  

While tuition fees have always been lower in continental Europe, the difference has been thrown into sharper relief by fee classification changes following Brexit. Before, EU students may have directly compared London’s performing arts specialists with other renowned European institutions, meaning competition with, for example, Vienna’s Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst Wien (MDW) and Italy’s Politecnico di Milano. The most prestigious continental European arts institutions may now have more of an edge over London’s institutions, however highly ranked, because of their significantly lower tuition fees. For example, MDW’s fees for international undergraduate EU students are under €400 per semester, and Politecnico di Milano’s full fees for international students are €3,726 per year. Compared with fees of over €10,000 per year in the UK, prospective students may now be more likely to choose a European institution. 

Of course, the students who aspire to London’s arts institutions will be considering other factors as well as fees, such as  London’s world-leading theatre, music and arts sectors, the rich creative heritage including London residents from Shakespeare to Jimi Hendrix, and its status as one of the world’s most well-connected megacities. Nevertheless, the financial impact of studying abroad and the consequences of the global cost of living crisis will mean that while learners’ aspirations are shaped by more than just money, cost will likely be a large factor in where they are able to apply. 


Where do we go from here? 

Despite the challenges, there is still much to celebrate in London. For one thing, our arts institutions are ranked highest in the world across Performing Arts and Art & Design. London institutions occupy the top two spots for Art & Design (Royal College of Art and University of the Arts London), and three spots in the top ten, including number one (Royal Academy of Music), for Performing Arts. This shows that the specialist education available here is second to none. 

As EU applications fall, we have seen a rise in non-EU students applying to the UK. Perhaps it’s time to consider the non-European institutions that may be London’s competitors in this new landscape. Except for the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts, all the non-European institutions in QS’s top 10 for Performing Arts and Art & Design are located in the United States, where degrees are significantly more expensive than in London, often between $50,000-60,000.  These are much higher figures compared to London’s institutions where fees typically sit in the £20,000-26,000 per year range, even given London’s high cost of living. If more non-European students are considering the benefits of studying at creative specialists here, then London is well-able to compete on cost and quality in this arena.  

The IESL provides pathways for occupying this future international space that are specific to the needs of London’s creative institutions. It is essential to recognise the individual ways this important group of institutions are affected by global change and their particular appeal to the world’s creative learners. In the context of a global cost of living crisis, London’s comparatively affordable specialist education in an English-speaking global city may draw applicants away from the US. While appealing to students who could study in the EU more affordably may be getting harder, London’s status as a vibrant, artistic global megacity with many of the best specialist institutions in the world makes attracting talent beyond Europe an excellent prospect for years to come.   

The International Education Strategy for London can be read on our website.

This blog has been contributed by Emily Dixon, Programmes, Communications & Research Officer at London Higher.