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There are 14 UK Overseas Territories (OTs) across the globe, of which 10 are permanently inhabited by British nationals. They have a collective population of around 270,000, of whom around 27% are aged under 24 (73,500).

As predominately small island communities, access to wide-ranging education and professional development in each Territory can be limited, particularly in access to higher education. This affects economic development, attempts to diversify OT economies away from one or two economic sectors, and the retention of young people and a skilled workforce.

This briefing paper describes the education systems in the Territories, the provision of higher education facilities, and access of Territory inhabitants to UK-based higher education institutions. It does not consider related issues, such as access to vocational education or life-long learning.

Territories are responsible for education

As UK Overseas Territories, the UK Government has responsibility for their defence and managing external relations. Most other issues are generally devolved to locally elected Territory Governments and UK-appointed Governors. This includes immigration policy, the environment, and social policy including health and education (though the UK can provide support).

For more on the UK responsibilities towards the Territories and the role of Governors, see the Commons Library research briefings on The UK OTs and their Governors and the UK OTs: An introduction.

Either under Territory constitutions or local legislation, education is compulsory in all Territories, generally between the ages of 5 and 17/18. While government schools are free, the private sector does play a significant role in provision at the primary level in several Territories. This partly reflects budget pressures on delivering education in small communities.

Challenges and benefits to establishing universities in the Territories

A 2011 study for the Commonwealth Secretariat on delivering education in small states (PDF) notes that while education providers in small communities have benefitted from new technologies and the internet, there are still challenges to establishing higher education bodies within them. These include:

  • requirements for teachers and professionals to be more multifunctional than in larger polities
  • accessing sufficient finance
  • enrolling enough students to ensure the institutions are financially sustainable (given the small populations of the community)
  • the potential for mobile and skilled populations to move away once qualified
  • adapting educational curricula designed for large states to the needs of local communities.

Benefits of establishing higher education institutions include increased retention or attraction of a younger and skilled workforce, economic diversification, protection and awareness of local cultures and identities, and development of skills appropriate to local contexts.

Higher education provision in the OTs

There are a total of 12 universities across seven Territories.

The three inhabited Territories with no local provision are those with the smallest populations: The Falkland Islands, Pitcairn, and St Helena, Ascension, and Tristan da Cunha (though Montserrat, with access to two institutions, has a similar population to the Falklands).

The Cayman Islands has the greatest number of providers, at six, followed by the Turks and Caicos Islands, at five. The University of the West Indies (UWI) operates in six Overseas Territories in the Caribbean/North Atlantic through its Open Campus. However, in 2021/22, the number of OT students at the UWI Open Campus varied, from around 5 for Bermuda to 290 for Monserrat.

Common courses in OT higher education bodies are management, law, business, health, the environment, and education. Three institutions (in Anguilla, the Cayman Islands, and Montserrat) specialise on medicine/health, and one each on law and theology (both in the Cayman Islands).

Where do Territory students study?

There is no systematic data on where students from the Territories study. Caribbean, North American and UK institutions are the primary destinations for students from the Caribbean. For other OTs, the UK is the major or only university destination.

In academic year 2021/22 there were just over 2,200 students from the OTs studying at UK universities: 80% were studying at the undergraduate level. In the UWI, there were around 600 students from the OTs in 2021/22.

OT Government scholarships

All Territory Governments aside from St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha provide formal scholarships for “belongers” (Gibraltar also provides scholarships for EU and UK nationals, and St Helena does provide some other financial support). “Belongership” is a separate status to nationality or citizenship and is generally associated with being assessed as “sufficiently indigenous” to a Territory, being granted the status by residing in the OT for a set length of time or marrying a belonger.

Scholarships generally provide sufficient funds to meet tuition fees and living costs.

The rate of which students return to the Territory once studying overseas varies. While this is a reported issue in some, such as St Helena, other Territory officials note a higher rate of return.

In response to these concerns, for 5 of the 9 Territory Government scholarships offered, students sign what is termed a “bond” on accepting it. This means they commit to return to the Territory once their studies have completed. This is primarily to work for the public sector for a set period but can also include the private sector in some.

Access to UK institutions

Within the UK, higher education is a devolved matter. This means each part of the UK publishes its own regulations relating to tuition fees.

Generally, to qualify for ‘home’ tuition fee status and the lowest level of tuition fees, students must be resident and ‘settled’ in the UK on ‘the first day of the first academic year’ of their course and must generally also have been ‘ordinarily resident’ in the UK for the three years before that date. 

Across the UK, however, there are arrangements in place that allow students from the OTs to pay lower levels of tuition fees when studying in the UK. For example, at undergraduate level in England, OT students are eligible for home fee status if they have:

  • settled status when in the UK;
  • Been ordinarily resident in the UK, the Islands, or the specified OT throughout the three-year period preceding the first day of the first academic year of the course;
  • have been ordinarily resident in the specified OT for at least part of the three-year period preceding the first day of the first academic year of the course

Details for other parts of the UK are set out in section 16 of this briefing paper.

People coming from the Overseas Territories to study in the UK will not need a visa if they are British citizens and hold a British passport. However, the UK Government acknowledges challenges for those holding a British OT passport, and says it is seeking to resolve the issue.

While Territory students are eligible for tuition fee loans in England, they do not currently have access to maintenance loans. In the May 2023 Joint Ministerial Council held between UK and Territory Governments, Ministers “acknowledged a concern” in Territory ineligibility for maintenance loans.

How this briefing is structured

This briefing paper covers four main themes.

Introduction and background to education in the OTs

  • A background to the Overseas Territories, including Territory citizenship and UK Government responsibility towards the Territories (section 1)
  • UK undertakings to support education in the OTs and legislative provision for primary and secondary education, as introduced by local governments and legislatures (section 2)

Delivering and arranging higher education in the OTs

  • Discussion of the challenges in establishing universities in small communities, and the benefits of doing so (section 3.1)
  • Debate on the “brain drain” of students from the Territories and small island communities to larger states, and the response of Territory Governments to this potential challenge (section 3.2)

Higher education provision in the Overseas Territories

  • A high-level summary of higher education provision in the inhabited Territories, OT student destinations (including the UK), and high-level summary of scholarships available from Territory Governments to support university study overseas (section 4)
  • Discussion of provision in each inhabited Territory (sections 6 to 15), including that of the University of the West Indies (section 5)

Territory access to UK universities

  • Discussion of how OT students interact with the university system across the UK, including tuition fee levels, eligibility for funding and scholarships, and visas (section 16).

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