Higher education in a post-Brexit world

Blog posts

28 Sep 2016

Joy WilliamsJoy Williams, Research Fellow

Higher education institutions (HEIs) in the UK are home to staff and students from many EU nations. They have a global reach and outlook.

How many students come from the EU?

Student data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) shows that in 2014/2015, although most students studying in the UK were resident in the UK before they went to higher education (80.7 per cent), 13.8 per cent were from countries outside the EU and 5.5 per cent were from other countries within the EU. Among undergraduate students from outside the UK, the highest proportions came from Asia (42.7 per cent) and the EU (33.8 per cent).

More than a quarter (26.9 per cent) of all higher education (HE) qualifications were awarded to non-UK domiciled students. When we examine student numbers by level of study, this figure rises to 62.5 per cent of all (taught) higher degrees awarded.

Both EU and non-EU student numbers are greater at postgraduate level than at undergraduate level; 38 per cent of all postgraduate students were from outside the UK, and 8.6 per cent of all postgraduates were from the EU (not UK).  Of all of the non-UK domiciled postgraduate students, over one-fifth (22.6 per cent) of postgraduates are from the EU (second to Asia, 45.6 per cent).

Some data is also available regarding staff numbers (read our earlier blog on EU nationals in the HE workforce). In 2014/15 there were 31,635 EU nationality academic staff working at UK HE providers, that is, 16 per cent of all academic staff.

How much income do UK universities get from the EU?

In 2014/15, EU bodies accounted for £836 million, that is 2.5 per cent, of all income, and 14 per cent of all research grants and contracts (externally sponsored research carried out by the HEI). These EU sources can include EU government bodies, EU-based charities, and grants and contract income from commercial companies and public corporations based in the EU. In addition, HEIs currently receive fees from EU undergraduates and postgraduate students at the same rate as UK domiciled students.

The impact of leaving the EU on UK universities

These were just some of the reasons that prior to the EU referendum in June the vice chancellors of 133 Universities as part of Universities UK launched ‘Universities for Europe’. This campaign and website aimed to highlight how membership of the EU enhances university research and education, and put forward their position to remain in the EU. In the run-up to the vote, the Russell Group (a group of 24 leading UK universities) released a document containing data, infographics and case studies arguing the case for remaining in Europe to preserve the UK’s position in delivering world-class research.

Nevertheless, in this ‘post-truth politics’ era, these arguments were not enough to sway the British public. Now, more than two months after the vote, after parliament’s summer recess and universities’ summer vacations, a number of these key issues relating to long-term funding, international student numbers, the ability to live, study and work in the EU and for EU nationals to live, study and work in the UK are still unresolved. 

For the time being, during this transition period, there is ostensibly no change: the UK remains a member of the EU. However, in reality there have already been some effects from the vote. Just weeks after the vote to leave, a survey conducted by The Guardian newspaper of Russell Group universities found that researchers had been dropped from consortia or asked to take a step back due to financial uncertainties. Other media reported that researchers had been ‘dumped over Brexit’. There have also been some news reports of international students being put off studying in the UK.

The government have taken a few steps to reassure the HEIs and the research community. There was a pledge from the Vote Leave campaign to continue to fund EU projects in the UK up to 2020, and on 13th August the Treasury formally pledged to underwrite Horizon 2020 and other structural and investment funded projects. In addition, the Commons Parliamentary Committee for Science and Technology is gathering evidence for an inquiry into ‘Leaving the EU: implications and opportunities for science and research’.

However, the view from HEIs and other research organisations is that more must be done to (at the very least) maintain the UK’s position in research and education.

 Subscribe to IES blog posts

Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.