Britain’s relationship with the EU has been a fruitful one when it comes to higher education. By operating within a larger European network, UK universities have become increasingly competitive in world terms. The UK attracts the second largest number of international students and, by most counts, has the second strongest research system in the world after the United States.
The UK accounts for 3.2% of global research and development expenditure but 9.5% of scientific papers downloaded, 11.6% of citations, and 15.9% of the most highly-cited articles. Shared European ideas, resources and talent play a key role in this remarkable global performance.
The UK’s research strength rests partly on its leading role in EU projects, which provide access to collaborators across the continent. From 2007 to 2013, the UK contributed €5.4 billion to the EU for research, development and innovation, while receiving €8.8 billion in research grants. Of this, €6.9 billion was from the UK’s Framework 7 Programme, in which UK universities were the most successful recipients with a 71% share of projects.
This immersion in Europe is equally striking in relation to people mobility. In 2015-16, 127,440 EU students enrolled in UK higher education, 5.6% of all students. Non-UK EU countries made a larger contribution to staffing. In 2015-16, 31,635EU staff worked at higher education institutions in the UK, 16% of the workforce. The figures are higher in the research-intensive sector, including 37% of academic staff at LSE and more than one in four in Oxford, Cambridge and University College London. In the last half decade, more than 40% of new academic staff appointed on merit to Russell Group universities were from the EU.
In the referendum campaign, the argument in relation to higher education was straightforward. Universities UK and other sector bodies, and individual Vice-Chancellors, argued vigorously for Remain, though the issue never achieved much public prominence and entered the official Remain campaign only marginally, in relation to research. The Leave case accepted the need for the UK Government to compensate science research funding, but ignored the extent to which free movement within the EU benefitted higher education and research. University towns voted strongly for Remain, as did staff and students.
What has happened since the referendum
Only one of the issues triggered by the referendum has been resolved, on a temporary basis. The UK government has ruled that in 2017-18 EU citizen students can enter British universities on the same basis as UK students, as before the referendum. EU students will continue to pay a £9,000 per annum fee for full-time courses, supported by income contingent loans payable after graduation.
However, the position for students entering in 2018-2019 is unclear, and it seems almost certain that after Brexit EU students will pay fees on the same basis as non-EU international students—that is, they will pay up-front fees in the year of study without the benefit of the income contingent loans. Those fees, determined by the universities, will range from £12,000 per year to £20,000 and more.
The future UK residency and contribution of all non-UK Europeans has been fundamentally placed in doubt by the referendum. The February 2017 White Paper on Brexit indicated that the Government wants to “secure the status of EU citizens already living in the UK” but there has been no resolution of this. A Times Higher Education poll of academics in March 2017 found that 53% of non-UK nationals were “actively looking to leave the UK” and 88% said that Brexit has made them more likely to do so in the medium-term to long-term. This is a crucial issue, and the longer it is unresolved the worse will be the long-term effects.
The Treasury has undertaken to compensate universities for any early loss of research funding under Horizon 2020 and other European schemes. The government includes continued UK membership of European research schemes as an objective in Brexit negotiations. While the importance of European research links for UK science is clearly understood, perhaps more so than the importance of retaining EU staff, it is not generally realised that the two areas are partly interdependent. Further, research is a second order public issue at this stage.
What might happen in the years to come?
A hard Brexit, and particularly a no deal outcome, constitute serious threats to the national viability and global competitiveness of UK universities. Under these scenarios, access to the bulk of European research funding will be lost, and it is highly unlikely that UK universities and science could be adequately compensated in the long run. It is not just a matter of money, there is also the lost access to networks of shared expertise.
Any reduction in the national science base also narrows the scope for industry innovation. The end of direct EU access rights will trigger anew skilled migration scheme in UK, with incomers from all countries handled on an equivalent basis. The outcome here is ambiguous. A scheme that favoured high skill researchers and educators could maintain much of the present entry from Europe while enlarging the scope for entry from other parts of the world.
However, if large scale cuts in international student numbers go ahead as planned, this would narrow the flow of talent from one source (international student graduates) while discouraging talent from another (academic staff from Europe and elsewhere). Much in higher education depends on whether in the fraught climate of Brexit the government and the country can maintain the UK, especially its universities, as meritocratic, internationally engaged, and above all, open.