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Brexit: what will happen next?

Director of Insights Aaron Porter looks at the future landscape for the UK's universities and their international students following the UK's decision to leave the EU

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Last week, the UK sensationally voted to leave the EU. In the end, the result was fairly decisive with more than 17.4 million votes opting to leave, compared to the 16.1 million who opted to remain. The result saw the resignation of the Prime Minister, and now there are a whole series of existing relationships between the UK and the EU which need to be re-negotiated.


While headlines will understandably be captured by how the UK renegotiates its trading and immigration relationship with EU members, there are a whole host of other areas which will be seeking urgent clarity. One of these areas is of course for the UK higher education, which as a sector was remarkably uniform in its enthusiastic support for remaining a part of the EU. The campaign to stay in included the importance of European funding to research in UK universities, the cultural enrichment that EU students bring to universities and the net financial contribution that EU students make through their fees and more generally to the local and national economy.


Of course how the new relationship between UK universities, EU nations and their students will be re-calibrated is unknown. What do we know? EU students currently in UK universities will be unaffected, there is no prospect in their fees being changed or students having to return home. That should also be the case for students wishing to start this year and in September 2017 too.


Looking toward 2018 and beyond, there will obviously be changes. Notably to tuition fees for EU students, who are currently charged at the same level as UK students (£9000) and many of them are also entitled to tuition fee loans so EU students (like UK students) only start to pay their tuition fees once they have graduated and are earning £21,000 a year. This will change. Although the start date is unconfirmed, once the UK leaves the EU, students coming from EU countries will almost certainly be charged international student fees which would not only significantly increase the price tag for them to study here, it would also mean they are no longer eligible for a loan, and will have to pay their fees upfront.


Perhaps even more significant than the topic of fees, it is also highly likely that the bulk of students coming from the EU will become subject to more stringent visa checks. One of the benefits of the UK’s membership in the EU was the freedom of movement; for EU students to come and study in the UK, but also for UK students to be able to study and travel elsewhere in the UK. This will presumably come to an end, unless the UK is able to specifically negotiate this somewhere. One of the most prominent programmes to support student mobility across Europe, Erasmus, is open to non-EU members, but of course this will come at an additional cost.


Serious thought will also need to be given to how the UK can continue to access European research funding. Under the current rules, the UK is clearly the most successful individual country at securing research funds. There will be an incentive to the funders of EU research that they will still want the best people to undertake this research, so hopefully the UK will still be able to access this funding, but it is likely to come with additional cost and strings.


The next few months and years will bring undoubted uncertainty for UK universities and their relationship with the EU and prospective students. Over time this will get clarified, but the big question will be whether the new arrangement will mean it is attractive for EU students to keep coming to the UK, and for UK students to head to the EU, for UK universities to still be active participants in EU research funding and I fear on all three counts, there will be movement in a downward direction.

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