How will Brexit affect universities and students?
A guide to what EU membership has historically meant for students and UK universities, and how Brexit could change things.
What has the EU traditionally done for students in the UK?
Studying abroad with ease
The EU’s freedom of movement rules enable easier immigration to other European countries, simplifying the process of studying abroad for both UK and EU students alike. Between 1987 and 2013, over 200,000 UK students studied at European universities through the Erasmus programme.
The number of EU students in the UK stood at over 140,000 in 2018/2019.
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, on average, £15,5000 for undergraduate study – though fees can be as much as £58,000 per year for some courses.
Given that most UK universities charge around £9,250 per year, home status saves an EU student anything from £2,850–£64,000 over the course of a three-year undergraduate degree.
All nations in the UK have pledged that EU students can continue to access home fee status and current funding arrangements until the end of the 2020–21 academic year.
What has the EU traditionally done for UK universities?
Huge numbers of staff at UK universities, both academic and non-academic, have come from the EU. To take just one example, over a quarter of academic staff at the University of Kent are from non-British EU countries.
The EU has given UK universities a significant amount of money every year. Swansea University, for example, opened a new science and innovation campus at a cost of £475m – a project that wouldn't 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.
In addition to general funding, the EU has also made substantial financial contributions to research in UK universities. Research funding from the EU has amounted to around £1bn per year.
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 had secured over 20% of all funds disbursed between 2007–13, with four British institutions among the ten most successful recipients.
EU membership has allowed the UK 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 US figure was 67%).
In academic circles, it's widely thought that the best research is done by people working internationally. As such, the UK 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 the UK 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 has played some part (be it big or small) in these circumstances, it should be noted that not all of the above is guaranteed to change with Brexit. 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?
The UK has now officially left the EU and entered a transition period which ends on 31 December 2020. There's still a great deal of uncertainty over the many of the outcomes of Brexit, however some areas have been confirmed.
Home fee status and financial support
England, Scotland and Wales have all now confirmed that students from Europe who begin a course from the 2021–22 academic year will no longer have home fee status or access to the UK’s financial support.
This does not apply to Irish nationals living in the UK or Ireland.
- England was the first to make this announcement on 23 June 2020.
- The Scottish Government followed with an announcement on 9 July – hinting at the potential for a scholarship programme for European students.
- The Welsh Government gave its decision on 10 August.
All have reiterated that EU students starting a course in the 2020–21 academic year will continue to benefit from home fee status and current funding arrangements for the duration of their course. However, if they defer their place to start their studies in 2021–22, they will come under the new rules for student support.
EU citizens in the UK who are awarded settled status will also continue to access home fees and financial support.
UK nationals (or their children) living in the EEA or Switzerland may be eligible for home fee status and student finance until 1 January 2028, if they meet various residency criteria.
EU students living in the UK before 31 December 2020 should apply to the EU Settlement Scheme as soon as possible (and no later than 30 June 2021).
Students can be awarded ‘pre-settled status’ if they haven’t lived in the UK for five years – they can remain in the UK for five years thereafter. Students with settled or pre-settled status will get continued access to education, free access to the NHS, free movement in and out of the UK, and permission to work in the UK. Applying to the EU Settlement Scheme will not affect students’ status in relation to their home nation. Irish nationals will not be required to apply for Settled Status.
Visas will be required by EU students arriving in the UK after 31 December 2020. Details of the new system were given by the government on 13 July 2020.
The new student visa will be based on the current points-based Tier 4 system for international students. As well as being offered a place on a course, students will need to meet English language requirements and prove they have enough money to support themselves and pay for their course.
Once it starts operating, the new system will allow EU students up to six months before their course starts to apply for a visa. Postgraduate students will no longer have a time limit for their studies, as long as they are progressing academically.
Universities or higher education providers trusted with immigration compliance will be able to make offers to students at degree level or higher and assess a student’s academic and English-language ability themselves. They will need to keep records of the student’s engagement, how their English language ability was determined, and monitor their academic progress. Attendance will not need to be monitored.
Current European Health Insurance Cards will be valid until 31 December 2020 for UK students who wish to travel to the EU. After this time, UK nationals are advised to get travel insurance that covers their healthcare when travelling to Europe.
EU students arriving in the UK after 1 January 2021 will be required to pay an Immigration Health Surcharge. Postgraduate students who bring their family (spouse/partner and children under the age of 18), will also need to pay this for each of their dependents. EU students who live in the UK before 31 December 2020 should apply to the EU Settlement Scheme to have continued access to the NHS.
Projects funded under the current Erasmus+ scheme will operate for the full duration of the project – even if this is after 31 December 2020. The government has committed to continued international education exchanges in the EU but the UK’s continued participation in Erasmus is still to be announced.
Response of universities
The Russell Group (formed of some of the top-ranking universities in the UK) had commented on Brexit, saying that they'd work closely with the government to ensure that universities and the research community receive the best possible outcome after the UK leaves the EU.
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. UK 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.