Brexit: The challenges that lie ahead for UK universities
Source: AFP/Niklas Halle'n

These are highly uncertain times for UK universities. It’s an unenviable position to be in, to borrow a phrase from Prime Minister Theresa May, as the nation’s higher education sector finds itself in a noose as Britain races to exit the European Union with no shortage of chaos.

The deadline is 11pm London time on March 29. It’s now less than a week away but explanations are scarce, fueling alarm on several fronts, from British farmers being priced out of the export market, to business feeling its least optimistic since 2008 and more tumbling of the British currency.

Higher education is not immune to this, with the crisis leaving several marks on the sector as soon as the results of the 2016 European Union referendum were announced. Valuable human capital – students, researchers and faculty from the EU – found themselves the most vulnerable, with jobs and immigration status on the line, to name just a few grievances. Research projects across UK universities are equally as exposed, many of which are funded by Brussels. More than 40 UK universities depend on EU funding for more than 20 percent of their research income.

Britain’s political system has repeatedly failed to deliver a stable policy. Source: AFP/UK Parliament/Mark Duffy

Combined with a recent report detailing the worth of international students to the UK economy – £26 billion in direct and knock-on effects as well as sustaining over 200,000 jobs – these are figures too big to ignore.

“Crashing out with no deal is the worst possible outcome for our universities,” said Joanna Burton, senior policy analyst for the Russell Group, an association of 24 leading research universities in the UK. “We’ve said before, but it’s worth repeating that a no-deal Brexit is one of the biggest threats that our universities have ever faced.”

With no clear agreement in sight, answers may not be possible. But deal or no deal, hard or soft Brexit, extended or not, UK universities will be forced to confront several hard truths to survive Brexit, whatever uncertain shape it takes:


A protester holds a “Science needs EU” banner on a march and rally organised by the pro-European People’s Vote campaign for a second EU referendum in Parliament Square, central London on March 23, 2019. Source: AFP/Niklas Halle’n

The UK government has promised to underwrite current research projects and all projects submitted up to the date of departure from the EU. It has also indicated that it would like to continue to participate in EU research programmes. History shows that the scientific community will continue to collaborate in the face of abject failure of politics and diplomacy.

But history and promises aren’t a reassuring combination against the hard facts at hand.

Questions on how these things will work in practice remain unanswered. This includes the specific actions universities need to take before the deadline so they are eligible for replacement funding. Access to other funding streams, such as the European Research Council and Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions, remains unclear.

But in a letter to The Guardian earlier this year, 15 academics wrote that these fears over research funding are misplaced. In the event of a no-deal, it is likely that Britain will assume a third-party role in accessing Horizon 2020 funds. Countries like Israel, Norway and Switzerland, for example, have successfully done this and the UK can join them with the added benefit of escaping the European commission’s “shackles imposed through the withdrawal agreement”.

“The idea that whole countries should be forced into political servitude in order to qualify for academic or scientific mutual exchange is ridiculous, illogical and completely without evidence.”

Student mobility

What we know so far: Erasmus+ grants already agreed by 29 March 2019 will be underwritten by the UK government in a no-deal scenario. What remains unclear is whether the popular student mobility programme will get a replacement to be made available for UK universities to cover bids made by universities in the 2019 calls. The legal status of institutional partnerships between UK universities and their Erasmus+ partner universities remains unclear, too.

Clarity is needed in this area if universities intend to uphold their ethical duties to internationalisation. A no-deal Brexit endangers UK and EU student mobility, and with it, their chances for upward social mobility. Data shows that those who study abroad are 19 percent more likely to gain a first-class degree, 20 percent less likely to be unemployed and 10 percent more likely to be in ‘graduate’ jobs six months after graduation.

To lose access to Erasmus+ could mean 17,000 UK students will miss out on these benefits, with the loss most pronounced among those from underrepresented and disadvantaged groups, ie. BME and mature students.

Immigration status

ProBrex-3 000_1C81CM

Anti-Brexit supporters hold placards and flags as they demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament on January 14, 2019. Source: Tolga AKMEN/AFP

If there is no Brexit deal, EEA and Swiss citizens will still be able to enter the UK as they do now and stay no more than three months. However, if they plan to live, work and study longer, they will need to apply for a ‘European temporary leave to remain’, which will be valid for 36 months from the date it’s granted. Following this, they will need to apply for the appropriate permission under the future immigration system, which comes into effect  on January 1, 2021.

While we are aware of the above, universities still have to engage with policymakers on how the process of European Temporary Leave to Remain (ETLR) will work in practice, particularly for European students starting courses longer than three years. This will likely be one of the greatest challenges in for univerisites trying to attract EU students, researchers and faculty.

Universities UK has advised members to focus on ETLR in their communication with prospective students and staff from the EU.

Liked this? Then you’ll love…

Despite Brexit, international students still keen to study at UK business schools

As Brexit looms, UK universities see surprise growth in EU student applications