Despite the prestige of Oxford and Cambridge and other top universities, EU students warn Britain will be less attractive after Brexit, with fees set to soar and legal tangles still not ironed out.
"It's getting quite difficult to decide if the UK will be the place the best students are going to come," said Polish graduate Michal Gren, 23, who is considering applying for a master's degree in Britain.
Daniel Haid, a 27-year-old German student at Sheffield Hallam University in northern England, said he had asked other EU students whether they would apply again now.
"The answer is usually straight-up 'no'," said Haid, who is in the second year of a doctorate in sports engineering and is a student ambassador for the UK Council for International Student Affairs, an advisory body.
"We have the luxury of being EU citizens. We have so many good options instead," he said.
In his view, Britain's new regime is "not really a competitive offer."
"For sure, there will be unfortunately less European students, I'm afraid," agreed Laura Langone, 31, who is the third year of a philosophy doctorate at the University of Cambridge.
"I know many people who were discouraged from applying, people who will start their degree from September 2021."
Dominik Frej, 22, an aerospace engineering undergraduate at Queen Mary University of London, heads a federation of Polish students, who number some 8,000 in the UK.
"This number will drop by 75 percent, for sure," he said.
There has already been a drop in EU students applying: down from 6,480 last year to 5,220 this year, according to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS).
The biggest hurdle for future students from the EU will be money once Britain is no longer bound by the bloc's rules from Jan.1.
International tuition fees exceed 40,000 pounds ($54,000, 44,300 euros) for degrees such as medicine.
The fee for a student visa is about 350 pounds and about 500 pounds to use the state-run National Health Service.
EU students will no longer qualify for UK student loans and higher costs will hit poorer EU countries harder.
This is "huge money" for Poles, said Gren.
"From now on, not your academic potential and knowledge will decide whether you study in the UK but your financial background," said Frej, who is studying remotely from Warsaw to save money.
Some EU countries charge no tuition fees.
Langone, who comes from Basilicata, southern Italy, won a prestigious scholarship that covers her costs at Cambridge.
Her fear is that "people like me, after Brexit, will not be able to get this kind of support".
Brexit will also affect opportunities for students to move freely for academic purposes.
Haid said he chose Sheffield Hallam after a semester through Erasmus+, a EU-wide student exchange scheme. But it remains unclear whether Britain will still participate.
Universities UK told AFP "the UK government should prioritize" full association with Erasmus+ and if not, commit to full funding of a domestic alternative.
Students and advocacy groups are pressing the government to clarify confusing rules and unanswered questions that could affect whether EU students apply to UK institutions from 2021.
One anomaly is universities usually require three years' UK residency in order to pay "home" rather than international tuition fees that can be three or four times higher.
To apply for "pre-settled" status in the UK, however, EU citizens only need to visit for one day by Dec. 31.
"The government must urgently provide clarity," the Universities UK spokesman said.
This potentially affects current applicants - unsure whether a brief visit now would be qualify them for home or reduced fees.
Admissions officers are telling applicants they "don't know" and will have information in January, said Polish student representative Frej.
The Dec. 31 cut-off date also affects first-year students who began degrees remotely from their home countries due to COVID-19.
If they don't visit the UK this year but come later, they could fork out for student visas, international fees and a fee to use the NHS.
A campaigner for EU citizens in the UK, Maike Bohn, argues students should not be punished for avoiding non-essential travel.
This affects "a few thousand" students, she estimated.
Her organization, the3million, has urged the government to waive the visiting requirement for remote students.
"You can be extremely rigid and tough, or you can think: 'These are the probably the best and the brightest, so why not?'" Bohn said.