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The very uncertain future of the UK universities

By Gabin Montagné, Open Diplomacy London and LLB student in English Law and French Law, Bangor University

· Europe

The trigger of article 50 TEU could constitute the beginning of a long and painful headache for UK universities staff and students. Although some have already anticipated it, the future of UK universities remains more than unsure and ambivalent.

More than 25% of the students in the UK universities do not come from the UK indeed, and among them, there are more than 127,000 EU students[1]. The  contribution of the non-home students to the UK local economy is about more than £13 billion per year, and they are partly responsible of more than 34,000 jobs[2]. A ‘hard’ Brexit would definitely be a disaster, as it would affect hundreds of years of progress and of high-quality research in the UK Higher Education. This article will go through the main areas which are potentially threatened by Brexit for the UK universities. On the one hand, I will address the issue of funding. On the other hand, I will assess the potential brain drain Britain would face, as a result of an intriguing immigration policy regarding International students. We will then draw a conclusion summarising the effect that would have Brexit.

The knotty challenge: finding new funds

It is widely acknowledged that money is the nerve of the war. About 16% of the UK universities funding comes from the EU. In 2014/2015, the Russell Group[3] received £579 million in research grants and over £3,2 billion in research investment[4]. Those amounts are not marginal. The funding cuts are a recurrent subject in British Higher Education and Research, and we all remember the 2010 students protests, when tens of thousands of students took the streets for protest against tuition fees. It seems that the government has not learned from these events and has perhaps overestimated how great the UK universities are, thinking they will be forever prosperous only by themselves. Leaving the EU means to break away from the EU funding for higher education, and the universities all over the UK, regardless of their worldwide rankings, will have to face it. However, it is worth noticing that some universities will probably experience more difficulties than others. Oxford or Cambridge benefit from huge funding resources, whereas others, such as the universities in the North of England, do not possess the same financial security[5], and are dependent on the EU funding. Today and tomorrow, in order to maintain their status, their capacity of finding new investments across the world will be a decisive challenge – as the government, due to its consequent 90% GDP debt, is unlikely to provide funding to substitute the EU guaranteed funds[6]. And so Theresa May’s promise to ensure British business remains at the cutting edge of scientific and technological discovery will be difficult to fulfil, because the £2 billion per year investment will not be enough to stop the bleeding[7]. Even the private investors might stop their contributions: Bill Gates, through Microsoft, invested billions in research. But this will stop, as he declared that the UK will be ‘significantly less attractive’[8].

It is now more and more common to observe the development of overseas campuses, and in a sense, the already initiated process could subsist as a solution to find new investors (such as in Asia), and we might observe more and more bilateral agreements, rather than multilateral ones, as the Erasmus scheme is, in order to maintain viable forms of transnational collaboration.

It is legitimate to wonder what will happen by the end of the 2014-2020 EU Horizon” scheme. The question remains more than ever unsettled, and loosing those funds will have an irreparable impact, not only on the UK universities funds themselves, but as well on their global attractiveness.

The very foreseeable brain drain 

Yes, it will definitely be a brain drain[9] stated in April 2017 Professor Dermot Cahill, Head of School of Law in Bangor University, who has formerly worked in Brussels on EU harmonisation projects. The failure by the British Government to give right to remain certainty to non-UK academics is indefensible for several reasons. Firstly, EU staff (composed of more than 32,000 people, representing 16% of the academics)[10]  is being put at risk by the atmosphere of instability created by the failure of the UK to come our early and guarantee academics right to remain. Brexit has now placed them in a precarious position in the UK[11]: even their freedom of movement or right to reside with their families could be curtailed. Academics do not like uncertainty, they often work on career-long projects, and do not welcome job or residency insecurity[12]. “Over recent months, I have become aware of EU colleagues around the UK who are asking, does the UK want us here anymore, and many are putting a Plan B in place should they have to leave”, he added[13]. And even if not leaving, many are openly reconsidering their jobs in the UK, and we can observe non-UK universities already snapping at the heels of the best researchers. This will weaken decades of careful construction of an intellectual power base in the UK, which the rest of the world simply is mystified by, and will seek to take advantage of. Secondly, many UK universities see their EU student applications down since the Referendum on June, 23rd 2016[14]. Some EU prospective students are rethinking whether the UK should be their first choice of foreign study destination. In addition, the British Goverment's lack of clarity is causing financial uncertainty as before applying to a UK university, EU students are not sure whether they will be liable to pay the higher non-EU overseas students tuition fees over the course of their degree should Brexit take place, and of course, they are also less sure now that, from a temporary study migration aspect as well, whether the UK really welcomes them anymore, and whether in the future they will have to apply for a visa in order to study in the UK[15]. A solution to tackle the fees increase would be to enhance the number of scholarships. Again, this is very unlikely to happen: we might observe in the few next years a selection by money, rather than merit.

It is vital for the UK universities, and first and foremost for the EU academics working in the UK, to remain in the continental research area. The agreements and partnerships concluded are likely to be threatened or even cancelled. The decision to leave the EU endangers the networks built over the hundreds of years (such as some double degrees between UK universities and European ones). Besides, it is the whole Britain’s soft power which is jeopardised. Some science fields such as nanotechnologies and cancer research are completely dependent on EU funds, and a massive non-replaced funding cut would have disastrous effects[16]. But the danger of leaving the EU is not only a concern for academics, it is a concern for the UK students as well. Every single year, more than 15,000 of them take part in the 30-year-old Erasmus scheme.

According to Professor John Hughes, Vice-Chancellor of Bangor University and a former official at the International Atomic Energy Agency, there is a change of attitude in European universities regarding their partnerships with UK universities[17]. But it does not stick to the continental dimension: there is also a change of attitude in overseas students, who are afraid of enduring xenophobia while studying in the UK. Because this is the message passed through Brexit and how it has been understood: the UK is an unfriendly place for foreigners. Brexit reinforces the trend that emerged with the Cameron-May immigration number policy, back then Home Secretary. No other country in the world is treating his International students as the UK does, by considering them as immigrants (which is nonsense as most of them go back to their countries right after being graduated)[18].

The eminent challenge for the UK universities and government will definitely be to maintain the UK as an attractive study destination. They will both have to work in concert, even if for the last decades, the government has been constantly interfering the universities process. The reason why UK universities are the best ones is because they are indeed truly international, and this reason must be pursued. But the loss of Erasmus programs combined with the non-replacement of EU funding, could lead to a brain drain, and that negative spiral would end by affecting the UK soft power, patiently and cautiously built over the years (which had its hegemony with the Pax Britannica), and today remaining the second world’s soft power[19].

Is the research in danger?

Most of the areas surrounding Brexit remain undetermined, and even some are unforeseeable. A lot will depend on the results of the very next general election of the 8th June 2017. However, it could be worth trying to draw a conclusion affirming that, as it has been illustrated, higher education and the academic research sector might be, at some point, in danger. If that is confirmed by the few next years, it could cause harm to the UK economy. It would be the result, on the one hand, of the lack of investment in research, which would lead to a lack of business investment. On the other hand, the departure of the EU students and staff would directly affect the local economy.

[1] ‘Higher Education in numbers’ <> accessed 21 April 2017.

[2] Ibid. [n1]

[3] Association of 24 public universities.

[4] Louis Trupia, ‘Universities need not worry about Brexit’ (19 January 2017) <> accessed 21 April 2017.

[5] Education Committee, Exiting the EU: challenges and opportunities for Higher Education (2016-2017, 683).

[6] ‘General government gross debt - annual data’ <> accessed 25 April 2017.

[7] ‘PM announces major research boost to make Britain the go-to place for innovators and investors’ (21 November 2016) <> accessed 24 April 2017

[8] Francis Elliott and Michael Savage, ‘Europe was key to my $1bn funding, Gates warns’ (17 June 2016)

<> accessed 20 April 2017.

[9] Professor Dermot Cahill, Interview with G. Montagné, Bangor University, 27th April 2017.

[10] Ibid [n1].

[11] Katie Foster, ‘Brexit: Heads of 35 Oxford colleges tell Theresa May to guarantee rights of EU workers’ (13 March 2017) <> accessed 27 April 2017.

[12] Colin Talbot, ‘No longer welcome: the EU academics in Britain told to ‘make arrangements to leave’’ <> accessed 26 April 2017.

[13] ‘Academics' survey shows little support for HE Bill amid Brexit brain drain fears’ (9 January 2017) <> accessed 21 April 2017.

[14] Sally Weale and Caelainn Barr, ‘EU applications for UK university places down 7%, MPs told’ (25 January 2017) <>.

[15] And cutting the number of student visas is the easiest way to show that the government is reducing immigration (one of the main argument throughout the Brexit campaign), but restricting the flow of students to the UK is not in the interests of the wider UK economy, as seen previously.

[16] Sylvia Hui, ‘Uncertainties over Brexit are risking a brain drain for UK science’ (11 December 2016) <> accessed 25 April 2017.

[17] Professor John Hughes, Interview with G. Montagné, Bangor University, 27th April 2017.

[18] This provision might change, as the House of Lords made an amendment in the currently discussed Higher Education and Research Bill, which would remove the consideration of International students as immigrants.

Les opinions et interprétations exprimées dans les publications engagent la seule responsabilité de leurs auteurs, dans le respect de l'article 3 des statuts de l'Institut Open Diplomacy et de sa charte des valeurs.

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