The Impact of Brexit on Universities: The Certainty of Uncertainty

After years of uncertainty and confusion, the United Kingdom left the European Union last Friday. However, frustrations concerning our future have not simply evaporated into the ether: no real agreements have been made and the future relationship between the EU and the UK is still up for negotiation. Brexit will of course impact universities across the country – a hotly debated topic since the referendum in 2016 – yet only recently has any light been shed on the topic. However, all confirmed arrangements, such as the fees EU students will pay, are currently very short-sighted and fail to foresee the impact of Brexit on universities after academic year 2020/21.

UK universities have generally benefitted from EU membership. Free movement and the Erasmus programme have facilitated a flow of students and staff between EU and UK universities. This has allowed a fluid sharing of ideas, vital to prevent academic stagnation in an ever-globalising world. The evidence for this is clear, since over half of the research published in the UK in 2014 involved at least one person from a non-UK address – after Brexit, this number is likely to fall. This would arguably be detrimental to UK universities, limiting their research capabilities, because research teams would have a smaller circle of experience and expertise. Furthermore, many young people from across the EU have enjoyed studying in other member states, crossing the EU-UK membrane in a hassle-free manner. Students often claim the foreign experience has broadened their knowledge and understanding of their subject and helped them grow as a person. It is saddening to think that all of this could be lost if negotiations fail and no deals are made to ensure the UK and the EU can exchange students easily post-Brexit.

Worryingly, Brexit will also have a serious impact on universities’ spending capabilities. The EU contributes approximately £1 billion to university research funding in the UK annually, which means that each university receives on average 15% of their income from the EU, according to The Complete University Guide. Without this support, universities will be underfunded and struggle to provide the same standard of education they have for many years. This could perhaps lead to further cuts in areas such as the Arts and Humanities and non-academic parts of student life, harming the student experience for many individuals. UK universities will be at a great disadvantage compared to universities across the Channel, without this important source of funding.

However, some experts argue that Brexit will have a less bleak impact on UK universities. The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) suggests in a report that the ending of student quotas could actually put more money into universities’ pockets. By charging EU students the international rate rather than the home fee, each university could raise an extra £10 million annually from tuition fees after Brexit. The HEPI also predicts that a 10% fall in the price of sterling could attract 20,000 more students from abroad to the UK, giving universities a further economic boost. It would seem these predictions may hold true considering Durham saw a steady 13% rise in EU student enrolment between academic years 2015/16 and 2018/19. Oxford University reported a similar trend. However, Durham’s intake from the EU fell sharply this year, by nearly 5%, as did the number applying to Cambridge University by a staggering 14.1% a few years ago. All this proves is that future numbers of EU students in UK universities is uncertain and that nothing can be predicted as of yet, making it more difficult for universities to budget for the years to come.

As has become a common trope in Brexit dialogue, the only certainty about the United Kingdom leaving the EU is uncertainty. However, we must acknowledge that anything that affects the UK economy will inevitably affect universities, evident in the university’s recent decision to increase accommodation fees next year by £200 on average as a response to growing inflation. In the event of a no deal Brexit and a rising cost of living, students may need to prepare to tighten their belts even more. This will certainly discourage prospective students, national and international, from applying for higher education in the UK. In this situation Durham University’s goal by 2027 to increase student numbers by 3,000 would be very difficult to achieve. Universities cannot expect to attract students from varying economic backgrounds if the price of living keeps increasing. Brexit may cause the UK to backtrack on every attempt in the past few years to make university more widely accessible. The stakes are high, and all is in the hands of those conducting negotiations in the next eleven months. All we can do is wait.

Featured image by Rebecca Harms. Available flickr under Creative Commons 2.0 license.

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