Written by Joanna Hughes

Brexit day is, it seems, nearly upon us, bringing with it significant implications across nearly every sector of life -- both in and outside the UK. Wondering whether this huge and historic move is actually going to happen as planned, and what that will mean for higher education? Here’s a closer look at the latest news on where we are and what to expect for students in the UK, Europe, and the world.

The Path to Brexit

In June of 2016, the UK held a referendum to determine whether it should leave or stay in the European Union. With more than 30 million voters turning up, the results surprised many people: Leave won by 51.9 percent to 48.1 percent. England and Wales voted in favor of leaving with 53.4 percent and 52.5 percent of the votes respectively, going in its favor. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted against it with 62 percent and 55.9 percent respectively, expressing the desire to stay in the EU.

In the years since, politicians in both the UK and the EU have been working to negotiate a smooth Brexit -- Britain’s exit from the EU. Specifically, Members of Parliament (MPs) have been endeavoring to avoid a “no deal Brexit,” which would mean the UK leaving the EU on March 29, 2019 with no agreements in place with the EU regarding what the future would hold.

Where We Are Now

With March 29 quickly approaching, MPs made a landmark decision earlier this month: they overwhelming backed delaying Brexit to allow more time for negotiations. Late last night, Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, declared that 27 EU leaders had unanimously agreed to UK prime minister Theresa May’s request to delay Brexit.

So when would it happen, instead? Well, barring the very unlikely event that the UK revokes Article 50 (effectively canceling Brexit), the most likely scenarios depend on whether or not Theresa May can get her proposed deal approved by the MPs during an upcoming vote. After the EU leaders’ decision last night, one Brussels official announced: “April 12 is the new 29 March.” By April 12, May’s Brexit deal will have had to have been approved by the UK’s House of Commons or she will have to inform the EU of alternative proposals. Brexit could happen anywhere between June 30 and much longer and would result in a new European Union (withdrawal agreement) bill settling many issues and details pertaining to the transition.

What Does Brexit Mean for UK Universities and Colleges?

With so much undecided -- even as Brexit day looms -- it’s hard to anticipate exactly how things will play out. But university leaders have been vocal with their concerns about a no-deal Brexit. And statistics shared by the Russell Group of universities do suggest an ongoing decline in enrollments among postgraduate research students from the EU at its institutions. Leaving without a deal, they say, would lead to increased uncertainty among prospective students from the Continent.

Also, a report from The Guardian proposes that Britain will be a less favorable destination for knowledge-exchange post-Brexit, with the potential to jeopardize everything from conference attendance to collaboration. “There is a concern about participation of European academics. What will happen with freedom of movement -- and European research funding?” posited Birmingham City University’s Center for Brexit Studies director Alex de Ruyter. Sandro Carnicelli, a senior lecturer in Scotland, adds, “Some partners in Europe are cautious about including British academics in proposals for funding, because they believe there may be issues in getting funding approved.”

There are also fears that Brexit will impact the rankings of UK universities on a global scale.  Some ranking bodies assert that European partnerships have been a major factor in the high rankings of UK universities. It follows that rankings may take a hit if this exchange is disrupted.

To avoid this scenario playing out, some university leaders are also calling for a two-year delay to Brexit as well as for a repeat referendum during which they would take a more “proactively pro-European stance.”

In general, UK academics have been vocal about their opposition to Brexit. In an open letter to the MPs, 150 university leaders expressed their shared fears that a no-deal Brexit could result in “an academic, cultural and scientific setback from which it would take decades to recover.”  

A UK Government spokesperson, however, announced that these concerns are unwarranted, telling The Guardian, “Science recognizes no borders and the UK has a proud record of welcoming the world’s leading scientists and researchers to work and study here. This will not change when we leave the EU. [...]Through our modern Industrial Strategy we are investing the highest ever level in research and development in UK history and we are committed to seeking an ambitious future relationship on science and innovation with our EU partners. We are also guaranteeing, in the event of a no deal, money for EU programme-funded research and innovation projects agreed before the end of 2020.”

What Does Brexit Mean for British Students?

British students - most of whom voted against Brexit and many of whom were not of age to vote in June 2016 - have been among the loudest voices of dissent against Brexit.

Most recently, 100 student leaders, representing hundreds of thousands of students across the country, signed a letter calling for a Final Say Brexit referendum, according to The Independent. Organized by youth campaign For our Future’s Sake (FFS) and intended is to warn MPs against backing a no-deal Brexit, the letter warns, “Any politician that facilitates Brexit will be risking the support of young people and students.”

In the meantime, anticipated cuts to tuition fees are also “caught in a Brexit gridlock,” according to the BBC. While a government-commissions student finance review was expected to see tuitions slashed by £7,500, according to the most recent figures, movement on the issue has stalled and may not resume until fall or later. So while students did at least potentially stand to gain from cheaper tuitions, there’s no way to say when these changes will transpire.

What does Brexit Mean for EU Residents Studying in the UK?

Good news for students is that both the European Commission and the UK Government have made clear their commitment to protecting the Erasmus international study program if a no-deal Brexit does become the reality. In this case, overseas placements of students from the UK and the EU would be honored. However, according to a report from BBC News, while some students have received assurance from universities about funding, others have been warned that a no-deal Brexit could put them in jeopardy.

Not everyone’s concerns have been mitigated by measures taken to calm them. In Norway, for example, the government has cautioned its students against studying in the UK. Said higher education minister Iselin Nybø, “There’s so much uncertainty because of Brexit. If you’re a student and plan to travel out of Norway to study this autumn, I recommend you look at other countries than Great Britain.”

Some argue that this outlook is unfounded. Britain’s ambassador to Norway, Richard Wood, countered, “[The] UK remains an attractive place for Norwegians to study. I hope it always will.”

Still, those who are already there and plan to stay are taking extreme steps to safeguard their standing. Take the example of bioengineer Alicia El Haj. Not only did this leading researcher in regenerative medicine in the UK hurry to secure spots from potential PhD students and postdocs from elsewhere in Europe before March 29th, but her lab manager was also scrambling to make sure the lab was adequately outfitted in case trade stopped. “We have thought about staffing, grants, and supplies so that we can carry on if it all goes pear-shaped," El Haj told Science magazine.

And then there’s the fact that some attempts to assure EU students of their security in the event of a no-deal Brexit are having the opposite effect. One example?  While the Home Office has stated its intention to allow EU students the right to remain in the UK for three years, Scottish degrees typically take longer than that. It is worth noting, however, that the Home Office has acknowledged these concerns. “We recognize there are a number of students on courses longer than three years, including at some Scottish universities…[...] For these students, in the event of a no deal there are options available to enable them to remain in the UK for the entirety of their studies,” the UK government body said in a statement.

Can Brexit Obstacles Be Turned Into Opportunities?

There’s no denying that if the UK loses EU funding this could be a significant hit to research in the UK. But the UK is not going to sit back and watch that happen. Rather, it’s already assessing how to fill the void by looking into creating an international research fund of its own. This would not only be open to British scientists, but to international scientists, as well.

According to UK science minister Chris Skidmore, this means Britain “is not leaving its participation with its European scientific partners behind.” He continues, “We have to look responsibly about what we do about ERC [European Research Council], what we do about those other grants that may not be covered, even in association to Horizon Europe.”

Also, the latest numbers from UCAS, the UK’s official higher education enrolment organization, are heartening -- showing an increase for the first time in three years in applications for full-time undergraduate courses at UK colleges and universities, for courses starting in September  2019. In addition to increased applications from within the UK, the number of applicants from the EU also rose by one percent to 43,890.

Perhaps most noteworthy of all is that applications from outside the EU spiked by a whopping nine percent to reach 63,690, with big increases from China and Hong Kong driving the increase. So the picture may not be so bleak after all. UCAS chief executive Clare Marchant announced, “In this time of uncertainty, it’s welcome news to see more EU and international students wanting to come and study in the UK.”

The phenomenon holds true across business schools, too, with a larger percentage of students from overseas choosing Britain for MBA studies since the EU referendum. According to Financial Times, this can at least in part be attributed to a drop in tuition fees resulting from the decline in the value of the pound. It also suggests “fears about Brexit damaging the sector were overblown.”

According to a study by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), ongoing interest from international students is very good news from a financial perspective. Data shows that not only will a single year’s cohort of students who stay to work in the UK pay £3.2 billion in taxes within the 10 years after graduation, but they also don’t take jobs from local residents. Ensuring that the door stays open to them coming means the door stays opens to this extra tax revenue.

Efforts are also underway to ensure academic exchange on a country-to-country basis. For example, Spanish and UK universities have enjoyed a rich history of collaboration. In a joint statement from Crue Universidades Españolas and Universities UK, the two organizations expressed their commitment to maintaining this relationship and urged governing bodies to do the same -- regardless of how Brexit plays out.

“We are asking our Governments and the European Union to do this by ensuring the UK continues to participate fully in the current Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 programmes, specifically ensuring ongoing projects and student & staff mobility are not adversely affected. Furthermore, we also call upon them to allow the UK to become a full associated country to the successor programmes, Erasmus and Horizon Europe,” assert the two bodies.

After the surprise result of the referendum nearly three years ago, a massive amount of ambiguity emerged in its wake. Today, much of that ambiguity remains -- with the higher education sector caught up in it. And while this is an uncertain time, there’s a lot of room for optimism given the many people working for the continued excellence of European universities and the continued mobility and exchange between them.  


Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.
By G. John Cole
July 30, 2019

The final academic year of the decade is a pivotal moment for higher education. Challenges are being met by increased technical and pedagogical innova...

By Joanna Hughes
July 19, 2019

Japan’s world-class higher education system, rich cultural heritage, extraordinary cuisine, abundant language learning opportunities, and relatively l...

By Joanna Hughes
January 30, 2019

Recently published data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) reveals that Scottish universities are making strides toward equal access i...