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What does Brexit mean for European higher education?

Britain is not leaving Europe. It is just starting divorce proceedings from the European Union. Here Nic Mitchell explores some of the implications for European higher education in his Brexit blog for EUPRIO members.


Theresa May brexitThe starting gun for the official process of Britain leaving the European Union was fired on 29 March 2017 by UK Prime Minister Theresa May, pictured, and British and European higher education and research leaders are watching developments nervously.


By triggering the European Union’s Article 50, the United Kingdom and the 27 other members of the EU have two years to try to untangle Britain’s membership of the club and find alternative arrangements for trade and cooperation.

Among the complex issues to sort out is what happens to EU staff working in British universities as well as future UK involvement in the Erasmus+ programme for staff and student mobility and the important role that British academics play in the European Commission’s research and development projects, such as the Horizon 2020 programme.

“Our future relationship with the EU has clear implications for universities in the UK,” says Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK (UUK), and vice-chancellor of the University of Kent – where EUPRIO held its 2013 annual conference.

Dame Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK

Dame Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK

She says: “There are currently more than 125,000 students from other EU countries studying at UK universities and 17% of academic staff are from EU countries.”

UUK wants to make sure British universities can continue to welcome EU students and staff and have access to “valuable and collaborative European research networks,” she says.

Reassurances for EU nationals

While no immediate changes for universities, staff or students are expected during the two years of exit negotiations, Goodfellow says: “There are some immediate steps the (UK) government should take in this transitional period. Most urgently, the government should provide reassurance to EU-nationals currently working in the university sector on their rights to reside and work in the UK post-exit.”

She also wants government guarantees that EU students starting a course in 2018-19 will continue to pay the same fees as UK students and be eligible for loans and grants.

“As EU students start their research about studying abroad more than 12 months in advance of actual enrolment, it is important that action is taken as soon as possible to prevent a further drop in EU applications for 2018-19 entry,” she says.

BREXIT image jpegThere was a 7% fall in applications from EU students to study at UK universities by the main 15 January UCAS deadline for applying to UK courses starting in the autumn 2017.

Lack of communications

The fall may be down to a lack of communications, as EU students will still have access to the UK public-backed loans system and pay the same tuition fees as British students – at least for courses starting in the 2017-18 academic year – and this commitment is for the entire duration of the course even if the programme ends after the UK leaves the EU.

The Scottish parliament, which has responsibility for higher education, has already pledged that EU students outside the UK will continue to receive free tuition for courses starting at Scottish universities in 2018-19. But the position is unclear for EU students starting courses in the rest of the UK in 2018-19.

Erasmus exchanges and EU research

There is also uncertainty about what will happen to the Erasmus+ exchange programme after Brexit and it may be that the UK will have to adopt interim arrangements as the Swiss did after they were kicked-out of Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 for three years following their own referendum on immigration. See my blog Can UK universities remain European after Brexit?Erasmus face single

As for access to EU funding for research and innovation programmes, such as Horizon 2020, British researchers will continue to be eligible to bid for funding from European Commission programmes until the exit negotiations have been concluded.

The British government has guaranteed funding by the UK Treasury for EU grants, agreed for projects prior to Brexit, that continue after the UK has left the EU.

Despite these assurances, there is growing evidence that continental universities are becoming wary of involving British institutions in new bids and proposals for collaborative EU research programmes, as I reported for University World News on 2 March, 2017.

Speaking at a London conference on 1 March, Pedro Teixeira, vice-rector of Portugal’s University of Porto, said: “In my institution, if we are reapplying for joint European programmes that were coordinated by British universities, the new proposal will not be coordinated by a UK university.

He explained this was “just in case the British will not be counted after 2018 or ’19, or whenever” and the bid fails to reach the required number of partners.

Glimmers of hope

The European University Association (EUA) sees glimmers of hope in speeches so far from EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and UK premier Theresa May.

Barnier said in a speech in Brussels on 22 March that the EU was ambitious regarding a post-Brexit relationship with the UK in the areas of research and innovation, even if this happens in a new legal and financial framework.

Thomas Jørgensen, the EUA’s main staff expert on Brexit, says: “The important thing is that the negotiations are done in a flexible manner so that sensible things like Horizon 2020 and Easmus+ association are not made impossible by difficulties in other areas.”

He pointed to positive signs, such as the declarations made by Theresa May in her Lancaster House speech, in which she welcomed agreement to continue collaborating with European partners on major initiatives in science, research and technology and did not exclude paying into European programme.

But there are other pressures on British universities, including a new focus by the UK government to see higher education as a major export industry post-Brexit.

A government trade minister told UUK’s annual international higher education forum on 21 March that universities should concentrate on increasing transnational education, or TNE, whereby UK courses are offered overseas. The conference also heard that a recent poll of perspective EU students interested in studying abroad found 76% interested in attending a UK university branch campus in Europe, as long as it was outside their own country. See here for more details.

EUPRIO position

As for EUPRIO, president of the association Christine Legrand, said: “I am sorry to see the UK start the process of leaving the European Union just days after the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome, which launched the European project.

EUPRIO president Christine Legrand

EUPRIO president Christine Legrand

“We on the continent work closely with British universities on research and student and staff mobility and are constantly learning from each other.

“Our hope and that of the EUA – which represents vice-chancellors and rectors at more than 800 universities in 47 European countries – is that this cooperation can continue in some shape and form.

“The key to that happening is compromise and understanding on both sides in the negotiations that are about to start.”

Christine added: “As democrats, we are not suggesting going against the vote of a majority of the British people, but Brexit is damaging for higher education, especially for the UK, and we believe you are better off inside the club.

“This doesn’t necessarily mean being members of the European Union and we have active members are in Norway, Switzerland and Iceland which are outside the EU.

“So, for EUPRIO, Brexit shouldn’t make any difference.

“But it is likely to be more difficult for students and staff wanting to go on Erasmus exchanges and researchers wishing to collaborate with colleagues in the UK.”


For more information:

UUK has produced a useful guide to Brexit for university staff and students, with helpful answers to Brexit frequently asked questions.


Also see:

UK research coordinating role hit by Brexit fears, University World News, 2 March 2017

EUA and UUK welcome EU ambitions for research and innovation after Brexit, EUA, 24 March 2017

Can UK universities remain European after Brexit?, 29 January 2017

Driving up TNE is a key UK strategy post-Brexit (Interest in UK branch campuses in the EUUniversity World News, 24 March 2017