A UK exit from the European Union could cost private schools millions of pounds, boarding school leaders have warned.
The Boarding Schools’ Association told TESS that a vote to leave the EU would be a threat to a market worth £100 million a year to the UK.
Its stance on Brexit has been backed up by John Edward, chief spokesman for the Britain Stronger in Europe campaign in Scotland – who is also the director of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools (SCIS).
There are currently 5,000 students from EU countries studying at UK boarding schools.
But the BSA, which counts 13 of Scotland’s 18 boarding schools among its members, claims that if Britain leaves the EU, such students would have to apply for visas, which could prompt families to look elsewhere.
Robin Fletcher, chief executive of the BSA, which represents schools such as Glenalmond College in Perthshire and Loretto School in Musselburgh, said: “There is high demand from parents and students across the world for UK education and this is particularly attractive for families from EU countries, because they can come here without a visa.
“That changes completely, however, if Britain leaves the EU. Those same students will be regarded as ‘overseas’ by the Home Office and will have to have visas.
“This is complicated for both parents and schools and may tempt some families to look elsewhere for an English-language Western education, such as the US.”
Mr Fletcher added: “This is not about taking a political position or aligning with campaigners on either side of the Brexit debate. But leaving the EU will place many of our members at a competitive disadvantage and threaten an important market for lots of schools.”
The claims have been made amid discontent in the boarding school sector over the administrative burden of the Tier 4 visas that most non-EU students must gain in order to be educated in the UK.
Finances ‘under threat’
Any additional red tape generated by leaving the EU could also threaten boarding schools’ finances, which are increasingly relying on overseas pupils as fees rise out of reach of home-grown families.
Last year, Scottish independent schools attracted 1,025 boarders from overseas, of whom 44 per cent came from inside the EU (see data box, below left).
Mr Edward, who stressed that he was commenting in his role as spokesman for Britain Stronger in Europe rather than as head of SCIS, said that leaving the EU would damage independent schools’ ability to attract pupils and teachers as it would “undoubtedly make the UK a harder country to get into”.
Brexit, which will be decided by a referendum on 23 June, would not just turn off EU families, claimed Mr Edward, who led the European Parliament office in Scotland before joining the SCIS. It would also put off parents from further afield because ease of access to the European continent and all it has to offer, from cultural trips to skiing holidays, is a big draw.
Mr Edward added: “If you are a parent in a genuinely global situation and you are living and working in Egypt or Kenya or Colombia and sending your children overseas to school, be it for security or education or English language, sending them to Vermont, Johannesburg or Dollar doesn’t really make much difference.
“What makes the difference is the ease with which you can do it, and what they can do while they are there.
“If the UK was perceived to be a more administratively bureaucratic place to come and study that would undoubtedly impact on teacher and pupil recruitment.”
However, Tom Harris, the former Labour MP who is heading up the Vote Leave campaign in Scotland, argued that the reason independent schools were successful was because they provided a service people wanted to buy, which would not change if the UK left the EU.
Mr Harris said: “Whatever we sell as a nation, whether it’s products, financial services or independent education, if they are of high enough quality, the world will continue to buy them. Taking back control of our borders doesn’t mean stopping immigration – it means managing it.”