The impact of Brexit on academia: A view from the other side of the sea

Posted in: Brexit, Education, European politics, UK politics

Ricardo Garcia-Mira is a Visiting Professor in the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) at the University of Bath, and Professor of Social and Environmental Psychology in the Department of Psychology at the University of A Coruña.

Jorge Sainz is a Visiting Policy Fellow in the IPR and Associate Professor in the Applied Economics and Moral Philosophy Department at Rey Juan Carlos University, Madrid.

Last year, the first thing that both of us noticed while returning to the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) at the University of Bath was the graffiti at the University entrance, shouting a clear ‘STOP BREXIT’. One year on and against all expectations, the UK is still a member of the European Union, the letters have faded away, and the road has been re-paved.

This doesn’t mean anything has necessarily changed. On the contrary everything has transformed, a no-deal Brexit seems closer today than ever before, and open-ended scenarios continue to cause concern. One of the issues frequently overlooked is how Brexit will affect academia.


Nature (2016) recognises that currently, 15% of research funding in the UK is from EU grants. British universities have benefitted from different EU grants extensively. EU funding programmes not only offer more money compared to the UK, but they are also a cornerstone when defining research priorities, and have attracted common research infrastructures like Eurofusion at Culham. The loss of EU research funding as a consequence of Brexit will impact the UK’s ability to lure top researchers from the continent in the future.

There are damning consequences from this. Take climate change, for instance - an important research priority of the EU. A large selection of climate change research has been led by the UK, situating it as one of the main defenders of the EU’s ambitious climate policy. Contributions from a number of research projects and extensive international networks have led to a wide range of research results which serve today as a basis for the EU’s commitment to a low-carbon future. Moving forward with Brexit, and thereby restricting funding for researchers, will cause an imbalance in EU research, and a move toward comparatively less ambitious goals, impacting energy policy and putting economic and social welfare at risk.

The new British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has confirmed that UK researchers will have access to funding from research and innovation programmes, such as Horizon 2020, until the Brexit deadline of 31 October 2019. To-date, UK institutions have been awarded €5.2 billion (14%) of Horizon 2020 funding, and four of the five most successful recipients of Horizon 2020 funding (Oxford, Cambridge, University College London, and Imperial College) are based in the UK, and top the list of highest recipients of Horizon 2020 funding, amounting to €958 million. So what will happen after Brexit?

The details of how Britain will proceed post-Brexit for funding, and how it will be replaced and implemented, are not yet clear. However Brexit will force Britain to significantly increase its national contribution to research and innovation, as well as pay more to existing EU programmes in order to retain its current level of research networks. The need to implement an effective strategy for the maintenance of international collaborative research, without which the risk of losing leadership in global research is something real.

Brexiters have claimed that a new fund for research (totalling £3 billion – an increase of 33%) will be available, to compensate the loss of EU funding. This figure sure dwarfs the £1.86 billion and 19, 000 jobs currently in the UK from European research. However, the former is a promise, and the latter is certain.


As different polls have shown (i.e. Nature, 2016), the first effect of Brexit will be a reduction on mobility. The unknown bureaucratic and immigration difficulties may alarm many academics, reluctant to confront additional paperwork and the fear of moving when mixed messages about immigration are now the norm. The likely reduction of freedom of mobility will affect the whole of the current higher education ecosystem, not just for researchers, but also students and administrative staff.

Some countries are trying to seize the opportunity however. For example, Spain launched Beatriz Galindo last year – a programme to lure back researchers, with a particular focus on the UK. Similarly, German DAAD, Campus France and the Spanish SEPIE are multiplying their efforts to attract third party students and talent.


Authors Finn (2018) and Willetts (2017) bitterly recall Brexit as a definitory moment of their position in Europe – not just for funding, but also in terms of scope and internationalisation. The European Universities Initiative (announced in 2017) was set-up to “...bring together a new generation of creative Europeans able to cooperate across languages, borders and disciplines to address societal challenges and skills shortages faced in Europe”.

The call focused on building well-funded networks of European universities able to compete with Asian and American universities by attracting and keeping talent in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). With Brexit deadlines looming, British universities could only participate as associates, and many were subsequently discouraged, breaking decades of long term relations with continental counterparts.

A similar situation can be seen in the most recent call of the European Research Council, where the UK has traditionally been one of the largest beneficiaries. As a result, many research groups are severing relations with British researchers, and looking for partners elsewhere, such as Israel or Eastern Europe.

We believe, as Finn and Willetts do, that Brexit will have a strong and long-term impact over the role of UK universities in Europe. So far, all UK universities have played an important role on the leadership of EHEA and have been one of the most sought after partners by other Europeans countries when planning research or Erasmus exchange calls. Our experience as researchers, with a broad international experience, tells us that may no longer the case.

In our personal case, we have seen the reluctance of research partners and colleagues to include British universities when building new consortiums for Horizon 2020 projects, and there are doubts of existing ones. A no-deal Brexit may imply a withdrawal of funding for new projects, or a delay in funding transfers for existing projects.

Is it the end for UK universities?

As Giroux (2002) put it, we are now in a neoliberal world with neoliberal universities, where there is global competence – whether we like it or not.

Brexit is not going to be the end of UK universities, but by reducing their ability to produce knowledge, collaborate internationally, and address global issues, they will for sure be much less competitive.



Finn, M. (2018) British universities in the Brexit moment: political, economic and cultural implications, Bingley, UK: Emerald.

Willetts, D. (2017) A university education, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Posted in: Brexit, Education, European politics, UK politics


  • (we won't publish this)

Write a response

  • Interesting to read a summary of these issues from your perspective. I'm particularly concerned about the mobility issues thrown up by Brexit, even with a deal (which of course looks highly unlikely).

    Having spent a considerable portion of my career working overseas, I've been pretty annoyed to find that my pension contributions in other countries will most likely now be unavailable to me. Under the EU system (as explained here, the pension authority in the country in which a person most recently worked is responsible for bringing together records of contributions from all the countries an individual worked in. For UK citizens that worked overseas, it seems that leaving the EU will now mean the pre-EU legislation will apply. In my own case, pension contributions in Spain were (under EU legislation) to be paid to me when I claim my pension in the UK, in an amount proportional to how long I worked there. Under the pre-EU system, I would have had to spend at least half my working life in Spain in order to qualify for a Spanish pension. Presumably, the old system will now be returned to. I have no idea how this will apply to EU nationals that worked in multiple countries, but presumably similar problems will ensue should they have worked in the UK for any period. Evidently, this issue (and issues around career mobility for researchers) only affects a small proportion of people so I am hardly surprised it hasn't made waves in the media, or been the focus of any attention from those in Government. However, for the scientific/research community, this may end up being a big deal, since working across borders in Europe has become increasingly normal relatively normal for the past decade and a half.