Why EU postgraduates are ditching plans to start a research career in the UK
A no-deal Brexit is spooking more PhD candidates from the EU from applying to UK universities. Source: AFP/Adrian Dennis

As Britain heads towards an exit from the European Union without a deal, its top research universities are seeing their postgraduate research enrollment numbers fall significantly.

In the wake of a 9 percent decrease in postgraduate research enrollment last year, the Russell Group universities reported another 9 percent decrease this academic year. At taught postgraduate level, it fell 5 percent.

“The drop in postgraduate research courses is especially troubling – these students contribute directly to the UK’s research capacity,” Dr Hollie Chandler,  senior policy analyst at the Russell Group, said.

“If we leave the EU without a deal, the uncertainty felt by prospective European students will only get worse.”

The UK’s vote to leave the bloc has shaken the country’s higher education since the referendum results in 2016.

It’s been blamed for the rise in EU undergrads not turning up for their studies at UK business schools, placing EU PhD students in immigration limbo as well as more uncertainty over fees, checks on academic ability and English language skills, among others.

Despite government announcements offering “settled status” for Europeans already there and the acknowledgment that they can leave the country and work elsewhere for up to five years without losing that status, the recent data from the Russell Group universities show many European citizens are no longer confident of starting a research career in the UK.

While Europeans make up only 16 percent of PhD students in Russell Group universities, that figure rises to 19 percent for the physical sciences, 22 percent for computer science and 27 percent for mathematics. A decrease in their numbers spells a loss of future research talent.

Central to universities and students’ fears from a no-deal Brexit is the status of research funding post-Brexit.

The UK government has yet to confirm that UK universities will have the funding they used to receive from the EU replaced, such as the estimated €1.3 billion (£1.2 billion or US$1.5 billion) to the UK over the next two years by the European Research Council (ERC) and Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions programme (MSCA). Vital research projects are at risk of being left high and dry as a result of this.

Dame Janet Beer, the president of Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, said time was running out.

“While we welcome the assurances that the government has already provided about the continuation of Horizon 2020 funding in a no deal scenario, it is critical that similar guarantees are extended, without delay, to cover ERC and MSCA funding.”

“Without cast-iron assurances, world-leading academics and researchers may leave for countries where access to ERC funding is not at risk, and those currently considering relocating to the UK may think again.”

Hundreds of thousands, including students and academics, took to the streets of London in October to call for a people’s vote on the final Brexit deal. Source: Shutterstock

According to a UK Government spokesperson, however, “Science recognises no borders and the UK has a proud record of welcoming the world’s leading scientists and researchers to work and study here. This will not change when we leave the EU.”

The spokesperson added: “Through our modern Industrial Strategy we are investing the highest ever level in research and development in UK history and we are committed to seeking an ambitious future relationship on science and innovation with our EU partners.

“We are also guaranteeing, in the event of a no deal, money for EU programme-funded research and innovation projects agreed before the end of 2020.”

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