Brexit: United Kingdom universities at the crossroads

After triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the United Kingdom is due to leave the European Union some time between in 2019 and 2021. Nevertheless, Brexit is already exercising a tremendous impact on higher education institutions in the UK.


QS, the Times Higher Education and Shanghai (ARWU) world university rankings consistently place UK universities among the world’s leading research institutions but world-class research needs world-class funding and world-class researchers.

Research funding

UK universities have been extremely successful in attracting EU research funds and are an exception to the general rule that Britain is a net contributor to EU finances. They currently receive 9.6 billion euros directly from the EU with a further 0.74 euros leveraged from other sources on the back of every euro of EU funding, leading to total research expenditure of 16.8 billion euros attributable directly or indirectly to EU membership.

UK Universities also readily acknowledge that their successful research track record is due to a great extent to joint research projects in partnership with leading European universities.

However, universities still do not know how much of this money will be replaced by UK research funding post-Brexit and this is already having an impact on long-term projects whose lifetime extends beyond the normal funding cycle. Nor do they know whether the future funding model will cater for cross-border collaborations as productively as the current European model.

Researchers and teaching staff

UK universities strive to be world-class institutions and their doors are always open to the best talent in the world. Estimates of the number of EU academics working in UK universities range between 34,000 and 40,000. In the Russell Group alone, 23% of research and teaching staff are from the EU and there is a similar pattern across the whole university sector. Many of them have achieved high academic office as Professors, Heads of Department, Deputy Vice-Chancellors and Vice-Chancellors. While their membership of Modern Languages Departments will come as no surprise, they underpin many other disciplines, including Economics and STEM (Sciences, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

UK universities are already suffering from recruitment blight. Existing staff are becoming demotivated by a lack of clarity over their future rights and a growing perception of hostility in both the population at large and in the administration, particularly in the Home Office. Some have left already, and others are thinking of leaving, especially those with contracts shortly due for renewal. Gifted young researchers from other countries will not risk their career prospects unless they feel confident about the viability of the projects they join and the legal protection they and their families will enjoy in their new country. For those with non-EU spouses or children, this can be a deal breaker. With the current uncertainties surrounding research funding and the status of EU citizens after Brexit, universities are usually unable to offer cast-iron reassurances and recruitment has suffered as a result.

The imposition of visas and work permits for academic jobs would be added obstacles to attracting world-class researchers and lecturers.

Universities in other EU countries and further afield have been quick to grasp the opportunity to attract many of these high-fliers to their own institutions.

Student recruitment

According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), there were 127,440 EU students at UK higher education institutions in 2015. The same source also shows that every year some 6,000 Spanish students join first degree and postgraduate courses in the UK. Nevertheless, figures from the central universities admissions system (UCAS) show that the number of EU applicants for first-degree courses fell by 7% this year.  Since the objective conditions for these students have not changed yet, many universities worry that this decline represents a change in the subjective perceptions of the UK as a study destination.

UK students pay what is called the Home Student rate, currently set at a maximum of £ 9,250 per year, including college fees at Oxford and Cambridge. They are also entitled to a loan to cover their fees repayable only after graduation once their annual income exceeds a certain amount, meaning that no fees are paid in advance. Currently, EU students also pay the Home Student rate and are entitled to a loan to cover their fees.

If EU students are reclassified as Overseas Students after Brexit, their situation will change dramatically. They will be charged the full cost of courses and lose their entitlement to a loan. The table below shows what a range of universities charge their Overseas students for different courses. The amounts shown are per year and payable in advance.

Overseas Student Tuition Fees 2017/2018 – Annual


Chemistry or Similar


College fees**

Imperial College



































Queen’s University, Belfast





* The fees shown are for the Clinical years. The first two years of a Medicine degree tend to be

classified as pre-Clinical and tuition for these years is generally charged at a lower rate.

** The cost of college fees has to be added to the tuition fees for each course.


The fees shown are in Pounds sterling per year and they may be increased yearly to take

into account inflation.





This considerable increase in the cost of degree courses will be a powerful disincentive for many EU students, many of whom will decide either to study in their own countries or look for alternatives outside the United Kingdom. The imposition of student visas or the elimination of the current right of postgraduate students to work after qualification would create further barriers to recruitment and the insistence of the Home on including foreign students in immigration quotas is not helping..

International higher education has become extremely competitive, with many European universities now offering degree courses taught through the medium of English at very competitive fees. This could mean that an outflow of UK students to EU institutions will lead to a further reduction in student recruitment by UK universities.

Some universities may make up for the deficit by increasing recruitment from non-EU countries and in this, for a while at least, they will be assisted by the decline in the value of the pound although some universities are already finding that their overseas intake is skewed by over-recruitment from a small number of countries, such as China, India, United States, Nigeria or Malaysia.

Transnational education

Several UK universities offer cross-border collaboration leading to the award of British degrees through courses taught in other member states thanks to EU Directives on the freedom of establishment and the freedom of provision of services. However, British universities and their European partners will lose this legal safeguard once the UK leaves the European Union.


Departure from the EU does not necessarily mean the end of Erasmus+ programmes for UK universities but they are unlikely to continue to continue in the same form or to the same extent as has been the case up to the present. What happens with Erasmus+ will depend very much on future negotiations for which the final outcome is far from clear at the moment.

“We cannot speculate on any possible future scenarios following the UK’s exit from the EU, but we note the Government position is that UK participation in some EU programmes ‘promoting science, education and culture’ may continue subject to the negotiation as stated in the Prime Minister’s speech delivered in Florence on 22 September 2017.”


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