How will Brexit affect universities and students?

In June 2016, the British public voted to leave the European Union (EU). As of June 2019, there is still uncertainty surrounding Brexit, and is impossible to say how young people in higher education may be affected. We will continue to keep an eye on the process and update accordingly. 

For now, here's a guide to what EU membership has historically meant for students and universities and the facts as they are understood at present.

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What does the EU do for students? • What does the EU do for universities? 
What will change after Brexit?

Brexit Big Ben EU

What does the EU currently do for students?

The ability to study abroad with ease 

The EU’s freedom of movement rules enable easier immigration to other European countries, thus simplifying the process of studying abroad for both UK and EU students alike. Between 1987 and 2013 over 200,000 UK students have studied at European universities Erasmus scheme.

The number of EU students in the UK stands at over 125,000 (roughly 5%), which in turn is estimated to have contributed £2.7bn to the British economy, as well as 19,000 extra jobs.

Cheaper fees

What will EU students pay after Brexit?

Most of the countries in the UK have pledged to offer the same funding until at least the 2020–21 academic year. 

Find out more

Residents of EU nations are usually able to study in other EU nations as 'home students'. Compared to the fees charged to international students, home fees are generally lower or non-existent.

In the UK, international students tend to pay between £15,000–£25,000 per year for the same course.

Given that most UK universities charge around £9,000 per year, home status will typically save an EU student £18,000–£48,000 over the course of a three year undergraduate degree.

Financial support for Scottish students

Under the Portability Pilot, Scottish students studying at a select group of EU universities have been able to apply for the same bursary and loan support as students attending a Scottish university. Although applications to the scheme will theoretically end after the 2016–17 academic year, the Scottish government has not ruled out extending the scheme after evaluating its success.

What does the EU currently do for universities?

EU staff

Huge numbers of staff at UK universities, both academic and otherwise, come from the EU. To take just one example, nearly a quarter of the staff at the University of Kent are from non-British EU countries.


The EU gives UK universities a significant amount of money every year. Swansea University, for example, recently opened a new science and innovation campus at a cost of £475m – a project that would not have been possible without the financial support of the European Union.

While the UK does pay membership fees to the EU, the financial return on universities represents a profit. Having provided 11% of the EU’s overall budget, the UK received 15.5% of the funds available during the last seven-year EU funding programme (FP7). Included within this was disproportionate financial reward from EU academic mobility and foreign exchange programmes, with the UK collecting almost €1.1bn (almost 25% of the funds available) over FP7.

Research grants

In addition to general funding, the EU also makes substantial financial contributions to research in UK universities. Research funding from the EU amounts to around £1bn per year, and as Britain’s own national research budget is below international averages, Europe’s share of UK universities’ total income has risen by over 30% in five years. In some cases this has meant that the EU’s share of a single university’s income has increased to as much as 15%. 

Funding from the European Research Council (the ERC, widely considered to be the most prestigious research programme of all) is allocated solely on the basis of research excellence. UK-based research has thus far secured over 20% of all funds disbursed, and between 2007–13, four British institutions were among the 10 most successful recipients.

Research partnerships

Thanks to EU membership, the UK is able to form increasingly global teams of researchers. From 1981–2014, the proportion of UK research published under just a UK address reduced from 84% to 48% (in context, the United States’ figure was 67%). 

In academic circles it is widely thought that the best research is done by people working internationally. As such, Britain punches above its weight in this area and has the highest proportion of the world’s most highly-cited scientific research articles (15.9%, placing it above even the United States). This statistic stands out all the more given that Britain has just 0.9% of the world’s population, 3.2% of global research and development expenditure and only 4.1% of the world’s researchers.

While the EU undoubtedly plays some part (be it big or small) in these circumstances, it should be noted that not all of the above is guaranteed to change. The precise nature of any Brexit deal will be determined under the terms of the Lisbon Treaty, and areas such as research (particularly collaborations) may remain as they are.

What will change for universities and students after Brexit?

EU Parliament flags

*updated 11 June 2019*

Despite the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, triggering Article 50 on 29 March 2017, there is still a great deal of uncertainty over the outcome of Brexit.

This is in part a consequence of the snap general election called by Theresa May, which saw the Conservative Party lose its majority in the House of Commons. Each of the main political parties has its own view on what the outcome of Brexit should be, making it very difficult to predict what – if anything – will change for students and universities after Britain leaves the European Union. That said, some assurances have been made for EU students wishing to study in the UK.

Confirmed outcomes

Jo Johnson, former Minister of State for Universities and Science, confirmed that EU nationals who are currently in receipt of student loans from the Student Loans Company (SLC) will continue to receive funding until they finish their course. 

EU students applying to an English, Scottish or Welsh university for entry in either the 2018–19 or 2019–20 academic year received assurances regarding their funding, and will be eligible for home fees, loans and grants for the duration of their course. 

In May 2019, it was announced that citizens from the EU, and their family members, will be eligible for undergraduate and postgraduate financial support in the 2020-21 academic year. This is subject to meeting the residency requirements.

There has also been a confirmation that there will be no immediate changes to the UK university sector's involvement in EU initiatives such as Horizon 2020 and the Erasmus Programme. Regarding Erasmus, both incoming and outgoing students on the scheme will continue with their exchanges as planned.

Possible outcomes

The announcements regarding fees for EU students are only short-term promises – beyond the 2020–21 academic year, many things are currently unclear.

Theresa May has outlined her intention to leave the single market, and thus withdraw from existing agreements on the free movement of people. The Conservative party has also repeatedly stated its desire to reduce net migration to the UK to below 100,000 people per year.

There are contingency plans in place in case of no deal, and specific plans have been made for higher education institutions, but a lot is still up in the air until a final, or no, deal is confirmed. 

The response of universities

The Russell Group (formed of some of the top ranking universities in the UK) has commented on Brexit, saying that they are already working closely with the government to ensure that universities and the research community receive the best possible outcome from the negotiations to leave the European Union.

While UK universities are urging students to remain calm, they are not the only bodies affected in the higher education sector. Universities across Europe will be keeping a close eye on how Brexit unfolds, in particular to see if UK students will still be classified as Home–EU when paying fees. British students study at universities across the EU, and any change to their fees classification will undoubtedly impact on European universities' student intake and financial income.

Maastricht University, one of the leading higher education providers in The Netherlands, has encouraged UK students to apply sooner rather than later if they wish to take advantage of the nation's signficantly lower tuition fees. British students at Maastricht currently pay around £1,600 per year, however this could rise by over £5,000 per year if no agreement is reached to maintain the status quo.