Brexit Impact in the Higher Education Sector

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Last Thursday 23 June, British people voted to exit the European Union (EU) in a decision which will transform not only their nation but also the world. The results from the referendum last week not only impact the global economy, but also the job and education sector: mobility agreements, funding for higher education and research and tuition fees are among the changes that we will experience in the coming years.

Since last Friday we have heard about drastic economic changes in global markets and drops in UK stocks. Market and economic volatility is expected for the upcoming transition period and the establishment of trade agreements will be on the agenda. In parallel, the concern of British universities has already been made clear. The heads of 103 British Universities affirm that the power and contribution of universities to the British economy should not be underestimated: “Every year, universities generate over £73 billion for the UK economy - £3.7bn of which is generated by students from EU countries, while supporting nearly 380,000 jobs. Strong universities benefit the British people - creating employable graduates and cutting-edge research discoveries that improve lives.”1 To apply for research or study options in the UK, or to enroll in an international opportunity in Europe may or may not continue to be as easy as it is now after the UK leaves the EU. So what can we expect in the professional and higher education sector after Brexit?


  • • EU students and staff status and job security

Uncertainty is high not only among directors of British universities but also with European citizens who are currently studying and working at British universities.The first step for institutions is to work with the UK Government to ensure that students and staff can remain at their hosting institutions and continue contributing to the research, teaching and ultimately positive impact in the British economy and society. Until a transition plan is defined and the British leadership established, and negotiations advance with the EU and other EU countries, the end result is unknown. But if a cooperative approach prevails, it may even be even possible to end up with better conditions for European researchers and students in the UK than they enjoyed before.


  • • UK image as welcome destination for brightest minds

Uneasiness about the longer term outlook for non-British professionals at UK institutions, as well as the widespread expectation that it will be “more complicated” for non-Brits to study and work in the UK, is likely to have a major impact on how attractive the UK is as a destination for EU researchers and students. The complexity of recruiting EU talent could become more like what it is now for international students. A potential visa requirement could increase the costs of recruitment and therefore play against the UK as an attractive study and research destination for Europeans. The former British EU Commissioner Chris Patten said: “Typically in Oxford and in other universities, about a sixth of our academic staff come from other EU countries and if they are requiring visas to come over here, it’s a deterrent”2 Additionally the fear of a brain-drain, of losing talent to the US or other western countries, can only serve to increase the uncertainty among academics at leading institutions in the UK.



  • • Impact on higher education and research funding

Concerns about the reduction or modification of financial assistance is surely present in the minds of academics across the UK in the wake of the Brexit vote. The UK is one of the largest recipients of research funding in the EU. Nowadays, around 50% of research papers are being issued by international authors3. British education receives considerable funding from EU institutions, for instance around 1000 projects at 78 UK Universities and research centers depend of the funds of the European Research Council (ERC).As a result of leaving the European Union, thousands of researchers might expect a decrease or stagnation in their research funds. Other more optimistic folk might hold out hope for the opposite, i.e. an increase in their funding as result of restructured government investments of funds not being channeled through the EU as they are now.


  • • Tuition fees for EU students

Once Britain leaves the EU, the obligation whereby EU students are treated as home students is, pending the results of exit negotiations, likely to be lifted. This leads to speculation that tuition fees for EU students will rise, which, one might assume, leads to a decline in the number of EU students enrolling in education in the UK. Europeans may well be recruited as international students, which leads to a significant increase in their tuition fees. According The Telegraph, the impact of rather an increase of decrease in the tuition fees for Europeans could be measured based “on the £3.7 billion for the UK economy and generating 34,000 jobs in local communities”2 On the other hand, the demand for high quality education is so high that experts affirm that even if there are fewer EU students, UK universities will not feel a financial impact. Indeed, student enrollment numbers have continued to rise within the UK even after the introduction of tuition fees in the late 1990s, and it can be assumed that universities will try hard to avoid shooting themselves in the foot, instead looking for sensible tuition rates that are attractive to EU students and ultimately benefit the universities in terms of increased income from tuition fees.


  • • Complex opportunities for British students and researchers in the EU

“Exchanges prepare students for the international job market” says Dame Julia Goodfellow, vice-chancellor at the University of Kent4. Programs and collaboration projects such as the Erasmus exchange and internships could be affected by the Brexit decision. The future of education and research agreements between British and EU universities is still uncertain, but it will potentially mean an increase in the complexity for British citizens to enroll in a semester exchange, a research year or access funding for an academic experience abroad. In order to balance the situation, higher education professionals and directors of universities should begin looking for opportunities to invest more effort in bilateral agreements which can lead or similar or even better conditions for the exchange of talent than the ones offered by European programs like Erasmus +.


  • • Cultural exchange and exposure

In a globalized world, part of the education of students should be based on the interaction with other cultures, especially teamwork and leadership skills among people from different mindsets. Any increase in complexity in the recruitment and mobility for international and British students will reduce the opportunities for them to interact with other cultures and therefore to access the benefits of studying and living among people of other cultures. Again the opportunity falls to universities to mitigate for this uncertainty by confirming existing bilateral arrangements with other universities, or seeking to establish new ones.


Once the next step is taken and Britain invokes Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal two-year period to exit the EU will begin. Despite the disappointment, uncertainty and concern expressed by British Universities after the referendum results, the European University Association and various universities and university consortiums affirm that regardless of the result, British universities affirm their intentions to remain an essential part of the European family of Universities and to continue supporting the free movement of talent, research networks, innovation and collaborations. Exactly what the outcome is lies to an extent in the outcome of the forthcoming negotiations between the UK, the EU and the governments of other European countries. To a greater extent, however, it is up to the people leading international cooperation efforts at universities, whether in the UK or elsewhere, to take the opportunity to establish similar, or even better links and conditions for international exchange in higher education for the future.


1Brexit result: What does it mean for the UK’s higher education sector and students?.
2What would Brexit mean for universities and would EU students still be able to study in the UK?
3What would Brexit mean for everyday life in the UK?