The impact of Brexit on higher education in the UK - and beyond

Posted in: Brexit, Education, European politics

Dr Aline Courtois, Lecturer, Department for Education.

The announcement of the Brexit referendum result sent shockwaves through the UK higher education sector. Recent research from the Centre for Global Higher Education at University College London, with partners in Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Hungary, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Switzerland and the UK sought to capture how the potential impact of Brexit was understood across the sector.

Unsurprisingly, the UK was predicted to be the hardest hit. Over the period 2007–2013, the UK was a net contributor to the overall EU budget, but a net beneficiary in relation to R&D, having contributed €5.4 billion and received €8.8 billion. In 2014-2015, 12% of the total research grant and contract income of UK HEIs came from EU government bodies and a further 9% from 'other EU and international sources'. The UK is currently the second largest recipient of competitive research funding from the EU (after Germany). In particular, the UK is a top performer in the competition for European Research Council (ERC) and Marie Skłodowska Curie Actions (MSCA): UK-based researchers received 22.4% of the total budget for the ERC grants over FP7 2007-2013 and 25.5%of the MSCA’s total budget. The UK has also proven to be a highly attractive destination for EU grant-holders: in particular, 65% of ERC Starter Grant recipients in the UK are foreign nationals.

In terms of international co-authored academic papers, among the top 20 countries UK academics cooperate the most with, 13 are in the EU. Further, 17% of UK higher education academic staff, and 6% of non-academic staff, are from EU countries outside the UK. This proportion is higher in the university sector, in particular among Russell Group universities. Regardless of nationality, almost 70% of active UK-based researchers had worked abroad at some point over the period 1996 – 2011 and a third of these had done so in the EU, which further illustrates the reliance of the sector on intra-European mobility.

Finally, a significant proportion of the income of UK universities comes from international students. While in smaller numbers (6% EU versus 14% non-EU) and paying lower fees, non-UK EU students still contribute about 2% of the overall income in the sector.

Many interviewees both within and outside the EU felt that the UK had a lot to lose in terms of attractiveness and reputation in the event of a ‘hard Brexit’. UK participants were particularly concerned about the risk of losing funding in the humanities and social sciences, doubting that the UK government would replace the funding for these sectors in a context of growing marketisation of higher education. Some participants expressed the view that the impact of Brexit would be very unequal across the UK regions (with Wales particularly vulnerable to the loss of structural funding; and Northern Ireland at risk of being separated from Ireland by a hard border) and across disciplines (19%  of academic staff in Engineering and Technology are non-UK EU citizens; Archaeology receives 38% of its total research income from the EU). It was also suggested that Russell Group universities, although more reliant on international students and staff, were more likely to be supported and to weather the storm while more vulnerable institutions may be at serious risk. For instance, the fear was expressed that larger ‘elite’ institutions losing EU students might venture into the recruitment pool of smaller institutions, in particular in the North of England.

Contract researchers, who rely on external funding for further employment, were particularly anxious about Brexit. Since these workers tend to be on relatively modest salaries, they also expressed concern about visa costs, access to the NHS, child benefit, pensions and travel to their home countries. As is typical of contract researchers, several participants in this category had moved from country to country several times before recently taking up positions in the UK. These participants expressed fears that their right to stay in the UK would be threatened on the basis of their recent residency in the country. More generally, participants felt that the referendum result meant they were no longer ‘welcome’ in the UK. Anxieties around Brexit thus compounded fears related to employment and residency status. This fear was also expressed by UK citizens working on insecure contracts outside the UK. Participants in Switzerland considered that with the departure of the UK, there would be a drop in research funding at EU level and the overall pool of contract research positions would reduce as a result. Despite the fears of an ‘academic Brexodus’, most participants in this category felt their options outside the UK were in fact limited and were hoping to continue living and working in the UK higher education sector.

While some participants in senior management roles expressed a sense of confidence about the future (echoed in some of our case-study countries, where it was believed that the reputation of the UK sector would survive regardless of the negotiation outcome), a ‘hard Brexit’ – where, in the worst-case scenario, EU students would be charged full international fees to study in the UK, freedom of movement for researchers would be restricted, and the UK would no longer be able to participate in collaborative bids for funding – could be highly problematic. As pointed out by respondents in EU countries, the UK would lose its status as a ‘gateway’ to the EU – for reputational benefits of UK membership work both ways. Yet, the UK higher education system may not be the only one significantly affected.

The research revealed contrasting attitudes from one country to another, and significant regional inequalities. Bigger countries, such as Germany, may in fact benefit from a possible reallocation of funds. Participants in Denmark and the Netherlands were more ambivalent. On the one hand, they are well positioned to benefit from a withdrawal of the UK. On the other hand, Dutch and Danish participants also made it clear that they relied on the UK as a political ally in discussions at EU level—where there are tensions between countries favouring quality-based research funding and countries preferring a less competitive and more egalitarian system. Ireland may find itself in an ambiguous situation, poised to benefit in terms of international student flows, yet largely dependent on the UK system in many ways. Participants in Eastern European countries such as Hungary and Poland expressed the view that they were not valued collaborators of the UK in the first place, and that the impact of Brexit would therefore be relatively limited. The fate of students and expatriates in the UK was also a matter of concern, in particular for Poland and Portugal.

In planning ahead for an unpredictable Brexit, in most countries it was envisaged to replace the UK with another strong research partner and/or to reinforce existing links within and outside the region. On the one hand, some participants—in particular academics—were eager to continue collaborating with their UK colleagues no matter what shape Brexit would take. On the other hand, participants in senior roles shared their emerging strategies to minimise the cost of Brexit to their own national systems and institutions; and these often implied partially excluding UK partners from collaborations. This confirms the fears already expressed among UK-based researchers, although at this point the phenomenon remains difficult to quantify.

This blog post is part of the Brexit, Money and work series, a new series of IPR Blogs with a focus on employment and skills, trade and business, industrial strategy, tax and pay that highlights some of the crucial issues policymakers may face in the coming years. Subscribe to the IPR blog to get the latest blog posts, or to keep up to date with our activities, connect with us on TwitterFacebook or LinkedIn.

Posted in: Brexit, Education, European politics


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