The Implications of Brexit and the EU Referendum on Higher Education

EU flag with a British-flag painted jigsaw piece missing

Love-heart British flag wearing a mortarboard The date is set: June 23rd will decide the future of the UK and to a degree, the EU as a whole. But what effect might the decision have on the higher education sector? We’ve looked at both the pro-EU and the anti-EU arguments and compiled the main issues. In this blog, we’ll look at the benefits of remaining in the union, the drawbacks and to what extent the call for a referendum has, in itself, already sealed the country’s fate.

There are four major areas relevant to universities that Brexit will influence: Research funding, research collaboration, student mobility and staff mobility.

The foremost issue on everyone’s mind is, as always, money:


EurosThe EU invests around £700 million into research funding in the UK ever year, and indeed, the amount of money we receive is disproportionate to the amount we invest (in specific regard to higher education funding). Universities argue that this money is vital for continued scientific and educational progress, of which the EU is a major player on the world stage.

The counter-argument, given by pro-Brexiters, is that the UK contributes around £17 billion every year to the EU and that without that level of investment we could easily fund our own research projects.

The question here though, is whether or not the British government would choose to invest the same amount of money in university research. Certainly, the stream of public funding cuts made by the current government suggests not. Moreover, the investment from the EU is guaranteed, whereas any promise of investment made by Brexit campaigners is pure conjecture. Indeed, there are numerous examples of educational and other public sector promises made by politicians on the campaign trail which are not kept post-election.

In addition, the UK already has a poor track record in educational investment, when compared to other advanced countries, the average is 0.8% of GDP, vs. the UK’s 0.55%.

The University of Manchester’s Graphene research project is a good example of benefits  received in the UK. The project is partially funded by the EU and features collaborations with other institutions spread across 17 countries. It is now regarded by the UK Chancellor as a cornerstone of his plans to create a ‘northern powerhouse’ within the country, yet without EU membership it may never have come to fruition.

Research collaboration

Scientists undertaking researchResearch collaboration is hugely important for scientific and intellectual advancement. There’s no doubt that the UK higher education sector is world class, but to make it a success it needs to work with the brightest and the best in every field. Necessarily, a large proportion of those people come from outside the UK.

Other EU countries make up the majority of the UK’s collaborators and being a member of the EU makes it much simpler to facilitate those connections.

While there would be nothing prohibiting the UK from working with universities in the EU should it vote to leave, the administration involved would become much more difficult. The country would be left attempting to negotiate access to European educational programmes at a time when the rest of the EU is likely to feel particularly negative towards the UK. There is simply no precedent for an EU country leaving and retaining its status as an ‘associated country’.

Brexiters suggest that we would be better placed to collaborate with the rest of the world, rather than just concentrating on Europe. But Europe is culturally and geographically the closest set of nations to the UK, and replicating that relationship on a global scale immediately could pose numerous challenges.


Group of studentsThanks to freedom of movement with the EU, around 125,000 EU nationals studied at UK universities last year. This made up around 6% of the student population. It’s estimated that they generate more than £3.7 billion for the economy and support 34,000 jobs – and that’s not taking into account the other benefits to UK universities and domestic students, such as international connections and cultural awareness. Without the freedom of movement guaranteed by the EU, the number choosing to study in the UK is likely to drop, taking away vital student fees.

Counter arguments include freeing up space for domestic students to study at UK universities rather than their European counterparts. But, in an increasingly globalised society, competitiveness is most often the key to success. Perhaps, rather than cutting out the competition, the focus should be on improving secondary education to enable UK students to compete.

There’s also a common misconception that a number of EU graduates move abroad after their degrees and do not pay back any money they may have borrowed from the UK government – making them a burden on the tax payer. This seems to be a misunderstanding of the data – EU borrowers are, in fact, far more likely than UK borrowers to repay their loans fully, or to make large repayments. Those who remain in the UK pay their loans back directly through the tax system, in small amounts each month – far less on average than those who leave the country and make payments directly to the Student Loans Company.

Brexiters also suggest that the strength of the UK’s higher education system means that EU nationals would be drawn to this country, regardless of our membership, bringing along much higher international fees, rather than the standardised fees they are currently charged. They suggest that this would mean a net gain for universities, rather than a shortfall. However, two recent surveys have shown that a UK exit would put a majority of students off studying in the UK – both from the EU and further afield.

There’s no way to guarantee an outcome either way, but it seems likely that the increased difficulty in gaining access to UK higher education (with regard to visas and administration), and the higher fees, could well put off a lot of prospective students. This would be especially true during the first year or two after an exit vote, while the government decides on how study and employment arrangements will work.


Lecturer teaching a classEU nationals make up around 15% of academic staff at UK universities. The freedom to travel and work makes attracting the best staff from the rest of Europe simple, and it helps to foster connections with our neighbours. If the UK pulls out of the EU, it would make it more difficult to recruit from the continent, presumably making the country a less attractive destination for academics as well.

The resulting gap could indeed provide jobs for domestic academics and professors, but to be a leading provider of higher education the UK needs the most successful staff, and by curtailing EU talent it may be at risk of damaging the sector.


Scottish man playing the bagpipes in front of a castleAnother issue for the higher education sector is the effect Brexit might have on the UK’s constituent countries. Inevitably, should the UK withdraw from the EU, Scotland would call another referendum and generally considered as being far more pro-EU than the rest of the UK, they might well vote for independence in that scenario.

It seems logical that should the rest of the UK begin charging international level fees for EU students, those looking for high-class education in an English-speaking country would instead turn to the historical, prestigious Scottish universities and bypass the remaining UK countries.

Have we already sealed our fate?

Hands painted with the UK and EU flags making a heart shapeAnother issue is the effect the referendum will have regardless of the outcome. Even if the UK votes to stay in the union, the country is entering uncharted territory – no member of the EU has ever tried to leave in this way and there are no precedents to act as a guide to what might happen to university collaborations and student numbers as a result of this referendum. It’s unpredictable to say what effects the campaign will have on the UK’s relationship with the rest of the member states, but there will almost certainly be negative elements here.

Interested in reading more about the EU? Find out what the new visa directive means for international students.

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