How will Brexit affect Universities and Students?

Brexit and university students

At the time of the referendum, Boris Johnson, then a pro-leave campaigner and MP and now front runner for UK Prime Minister after the resignation of Theresa May on 7 June 2019, wrote in the Daily Telegraph “I cannot stress too much that Britain is part of Europe, and always will be. There will still be intense and intensifying European cooperation and partnership in a huge number of fields: the arts, the sciences, the universities, and on improving the environment. EU citizens living in this country will have their rights fully protected, and the same goes for British citizens living in the EU.”

EU ‘home students’ in the UK

The EU’s Erasmus programme has allowed around 130,000 EU students to enrol in UK universities, and around 15,000 UK students to enrol in other EU nations as 'home students', charged the same fees as the country’s citizens, which in the UK is around GBP9,250 per year, instead of the international student rate which is between GBP10,000–35,000 per year for the same course. In July 2018, EU students applying to a British university for entry in the 2019-20 academic year were assured that eligibility for home fees, loans and grants will continue for the duration of their undergraduate and postgraduate course.

Although enrolment of EU citizens at undergraduate level in the UK grew by one per cent in the 2018-19 academic year, the numbers of those taught at postgraduate level fell by five per cent, a figure that is troubling since these students contribute directly to the UK’s research work. Uncertainty over Brexit and the UK’s future relationship with Europe is believed to be a significant factor in the decline, with university heads concerned that if the UK leave the EU without a deal, the uncertainty felt by prospective European students will see enrolment numbers fall further.

While home fee rates have been guaranteed for 2019-20, future plans remain unclear. UK Education Secretary Damian Hinds has stated that from 2021, the UK may start charging overseas EU students the same fees as other international students, which will also remove access to the UK student loans scheme.

EU help to UK universities

EU staff

Around 50,00 staff from the EU are employed at UK universities, each contributing to university research and teaching and having a positive impact on the UK. These EU staff, the 130,000 EU students and 15,000 UK students studying in Europe are facing continuing uncertainty about their future.


Funding from the EU allows UK universities to invest in innovation. The UK receives a financial return higher than its fee because of EU academic mobility and foreign exchange programmes. UK universities are keen to continue securing opportunities for their researchers and students to access vital pan-European programmes and build new global networks after Brexit.

Research grants

Thanks to EU membership, the UK has been able to host global teams of researchers that have played a crucial part in the success of the top-ranking Russell Group universities in the UK.

The EU contributes more than GBP1 billion each year to research in UK universities. The UK has been most successful winning awards from the European Research Council (ERC). Academics funded by these grants have won prestigious prizes including six Nobel Prizes, four Fields Medals and five Wolf Prizes. According to an independent study in 2017, over 70 per cent of ERC projects have made scientific breakthroughs or major advances. In March 2019, the ERC disbursed 20 per cent of funding to UK-based research.

While the UK government has assured the continuation of some research funding streams in the event no-deal Brexit scenario, similar guarantees are needed in relation to ERC and Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions funding, without which the UK may lose its ability to retain and recruit world-renowned staff at prestigious universities. The terms for non-EU countries to participate in Horizon Europe also remains unsettled.

The response of universities

The Russell Group of top universities in the UK had asked the UK government for assurances that Brexit negotiations had sought to protect staff and students currently working and studying at UK universities. The fall in the number of EU students who enrolled at Russell Group universities in the 2018-19 academic year has raised a red-flag for the sectors future success in international collaborative research, open to other researchers world-wide.

Britain’s universities are popular destinations for EU and international students. Officials estimate higher education exports were worth roughly GBP13.4 billion in 2016, but it is not just financial benefits that the UK gains from overseas students. Ties with the world’s future business leaders, technocrats and politicians will be crucial to the UK’s future. A no-deal Brexit would be an academic, cultural and scientific setback from which it would take UK universities decades to recover.