Brexit and higher education

UCLAutumn2Sir Peter Scott, Emeritus Professor of Higher Educational Studies at the UCL Institute of Education, outlines the implications which Brexit will have for UK universities. Although noting that much is uncertain, he outlines four areas in which negative impact is identifiable: student exchanges (largely through the Erasmus programme), the recruitment of students from other EU countries, the employment of academic and research staff from the rest of the EU, and research grants and income from EU programmes. He argues that Brexit could undermine both the financial sustainability of UK univerisities, as well as the overall quality of their scholarship.

Some of the implications for higher education of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union can already be identified. Others are more difficult to identify, but may be even more important. This means that the long-term consequences for UK universities, colleges, and research establishments of the decision to ‘leave’ will be a slow-burn affair.

The identifiable implications can be divided into four – student exchanges, principally through the Erasmus programme; recruitment of students from other EU countries; employment of academic and research staff from the rest of the EU; and research grants and income (both directly from EU funded ‘Framework’ and ‘Horizon 2020’ programmes and from public bodies and private companies in other EU countries).

More students from other EU countries want to come to study for part of their courses in the UK than vice versa, so the UK is a net importer. However, these programmes are funded by the EU, so there are no negative financial consequences for the UK. Several explanations of this imbalance have been offered. UK students are reluctant to learn, and study in, other languages, although in practice many courses in other European universities are now taught in English. There is obviously a powerful reverse effect: other European students are keen to study in English (and they are also attracted by the very high academic reputations of many UK universities). England, not Scotland, has shorter three-year undergraduate degrees, which leave less time for exchanges.

But the imbalance is largely the result of the reluctance of UK students to take up the opportunities offered by Erasmus, although those that do have an overwhelmingly positive experience (and almost certainly a pay-off in terms of their attractiveness to future employers). This general linguistic – and, still more, cultural – timidity cannot be described in a positive light. Another example of the Brexit blues?

More generally the presence of other EU students has often compensated for deficits in domestic demand, especially in some key science and technology subjects. Rather as the National Health Service has relied on importing workers from other countries (and a significant proportion of more highly qualified workers, especially in clinical fields, has come from the rest of the EU), so the recruitment of other EU students has enabled UK higher education to sustain its capacity in some key areas. In terms of the intellectual and scientific balance sheet the UK has been a net beneficiary.

In financial terms the picture is less clear cut. As long as the UK remains a member of the EU it has to treat other EU students in exactly the same way as UK students – which means charging the same £9,000 fee in England (rather than the higher fee charged to international students) and providing free tuition in Scotland. After Brexit universities will be able to charge other EU students higher fees, although some may be reluctant to do so. Applications from other-EU students have already begun to decline, so any financial benefit from the ability to charge non-EU students higher fees is likely to be limited. It is very unlikely to compensate for the significant academic loss that a reduced presence of other Europeans in UK universities would represent.

The presence of academic staff from the rest of the EU is an undoubted asset. A significant proportion of these people first came to the UK as students, notably as research students, and then moved on to become early-career researchers. Some, of course, were recruited later to fill senior academic positions. Just over two-thirds of academic staff in UK higher education are British. The next largest group – 17 per cent – is from the rest of the EU, as opposed to 12 per cent from the rest of the world. Almost a quarter of academic staff in humanities is from other EU countries, and almost as high a proportion in biological, mathematical and physical sciences. Brexit is likely to make the UK a less attractive destination in the future, because they will no longer benefit from free movement (and, even if the UK Government introduces immigration controls that favour the highly skilled, will face new legal obstacles) but also because the UK will be perceived as a less welcoming host.

The UK is almost certain to be a clear loser after Brexit in terms of research funding. At present UK universities gain a much greater share of funding from EU funded research programmes than the contribution made by the UK Government to the cost of these programmes. Exact figures are difficult to calculate because much of the funding goes to consortia of universities from several European countries. But the UK has the largest number of projects funded by the European Research Council – 10 per cent more than its nearest rival, Germany, and 40 per cent more than France. Of course, the UK Government could decide to continue to contribute to European research programmes and therefore UK institutions would remain eligible to receive grants, as Switzerland does. But there is little evidence that this is the intention of the UK Government, or that other EU member stats would agree in the fraught Brexit negotiations that lie ahead.

However, these direct losses will be far outweighed by indirect losses extending over a longer time period. The dilemma can be simply stated. Will the post-Brexit UK be regarded as ‘Global Britain’, as the Government ostensibly supposed, or will it be seen as ‘Little England’? It would be a bold prediction to suppose that after it leaves the EU the UK will become a more rather than less desirable destination for international students (now including students from the rest of the EU). The Government has already made it clear that curbing immigration is its top priority, and (however illogically) international students are included in the official immigration figures. There are already signs they are getting the message, and applications have dipped. This is a serious matter because the financial sustainability of many UK universities depends on recruiting more, not fewer, international students.

But most serious of all is the potential impact on the creativity and productivity of UK science and scholarship. It is not just that the UK will be seen as a less attractive place for the best and the brightest from other countries to make their careers, to the disbenefit of the UK. It is also that the freer rein given to populism, nativism and even xenophobia will have a chilling effect on the quality of intellectual and scientific life in the UK. Universities could go on paying the price of the narrow 52:48 decision to leave the EU for many years to come, and the price is likely to increase not diminish as the decades go by.


Sir Peter Scott is Emeritus Professor of Higher Educational Studies at the UCL Institute of Education.


NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.


This article is based on a longer piece which is due to be published in Public Finance as part of an in-depth essay series on public finance and policy issues.

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