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How will Brexit affect universities and students?

A guide to what EU membership historically meant for students and UK universities, and how Brexit will change things.

What did the EU traditionally do for students in the UK?

Studying abroad with ease

The EU’s freedom of movement rules enabled 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 2018/19.

Cheaper fees

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, £15,500 for undergraduate study – though fees can be as much as £58,000 per year for some courses (at 2020 rates).

Given that most UK universities charge around £9,250 per year, home status saved EU students anything from £2,850–£64,000 over the course of a three-year undergraduate degree.

What did the EU traditionally do for UK universities?

EU staff

Huge numbers of staff at UK universities, both academic and non-academic, have come from the EU. To take just one example, in 2018/19 over a quarter of academic staff at the University of Kent were from non-British EU countries.

Funding

The EU gave 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 paid membership fees to the EU, the financial return on universities represented a profit.

Research grants

In addition to general funding, the EU also made substantial financial contributions to research in UK universities. Research funding from the EU 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 secured over 20% of all funds disbursed between 2007–13, with four British institutions among the ten most successful recipients.

Research partnerships

EU membership also 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. In 2013 it was reported to have 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 at the time the UK had 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.

What changed for universities and students after Brexit?

The UK officially left the EU on 31 January 2020, followed by a transition period that ended on 31 December 2020. The following changes have now been confirmed.

EU Settlement Scheme

EU, EEA and Swiss citizens – including family members – who arrived in the UK before 31 December 2020 must apply to the UK's 'EU Settlement Scheme' as soon as possible (and no later than 30 June 2021).

Eligible applicants will get one of two statuses:

  • Settled status is awarded to applicants who’ve already lived continuously in the UK for five years. It allows them to remain in the UK for as long as they like, or even apply for British citizenship if eligible.
  • Pre-settled status is awarded to applicants who haven’t lived in the UK for five years. They can remain in the UK for five years from the date they gain pre-settled status but should apply to switch to settled status once eligible.

Those with settled or pre-settled status 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 under the EU Settlement Scheme doesn’t affect the applicant’s status in relation to their home nation.

Irish nationals won’t need to apply for settled status as they are covered by the Common Travel Area.

Home fee status and financial support

All nations in the UK pledged that EU students could continue to access home fee status and current funding arrangements until the end of the 2020/21 academic year. However, those starting a course in 2021/22 no longer have home fee status or access to the UK’s financial support. This includes students who applied to start a course in 2020/21 but deferred until 2021/22.

The two exceptions are:

  • EU students registered with the EU Settlement Scheme, with settled or pre-settled status
  • Irish nationals living in the UK or Ireland

They will continue to have home fee status and eligibility for tuition fee loans. Irish students who've lived in the UK for three years will qualify for maintenance loans, as will students with settled status. In some UK nations (not England), students with pre-settled status who’ve lived in the UK for over three years may also qualify for maintenance support.

UK nationals (or their children) living in the EEA or Switzerland may be eligible for home fee status and student finance in the UK until 1 January 2028, if they meet various residency criteria.

Visa requirements

EU students arriving in the UK after 31 December 2020 will need visas if they are on a course longer than six months. This doesn’t apply to students with settled or pre-settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme, or to Irish citizens.

The new Student route visa works on a points-based system. As well as being offered a place on a course, students need to meet English language requirements. Students may also need to prove they have enough money to support themselves and pay for their course, although this isn’t normally required of students from certain countries including the EU, EEA and Switzerland.

Universities or higher education providers trusted with immigration compliance can make offers to students at degree level or higher and assess a student’s academic and English-language ability themselves. They must 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.

To facilitate the mobility of researchers, the UK is offering a Global Talent visa that allows recipients to live and work in the UK for up to five years at a time, with no limit to extensions.

Health services

Current European Health Insurance Cards are still valid for UK students who wish to travel to the EU, until the date their card expires.

After this, there may be the option of applying for a UK EHIC, or the UK’s new Global Health Insurance Card, depending on your eligibility. In most cases, UK citizens living in the UK are only likely to be eligible for the GHIC. However there are exceptions; for details, check the guidance on the NHS website. In all cases, these cards provide only for emergency healthcare support, so students are also advised to get suitable travel insurance with health cover.

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 need to pay this for each of their dependents. EU students who were living in the UK by 31 December 2020 should apply to the EU Settlement Scheme to have continued access to the NHS.

Erasmus and the new Turing scheme

Projects funded under the current Erasmus+ scheme will operate for the full duration of the project, even if this is after 31 December 2020.

Students in Northern Ireland can continue to participate in Erasmus after an arrangement with the government of the Republic of Ireland, however those studying elsewhere in the UK cannot.

Instead, from September 2021 the UK’s new Turing scheme will offer students the opportunity for international exchanges or placements, with a particular emphasis on widening participation. UK organisations are being invited to bid into the Turing scheme from early 2021.

Research and Horizon Europe

It was confirmed on 24 December 2020 that the UK will be associated to Horizon Europe, the EU’s next seven-year research and innovation programme which runs from 2021. It’s not the only associate country: 16 who were associate members of Horizon 2020 – including Switzerland and Israel – are also expected to associate to programme by the autumn of 2021, along with new applicants that may include Morocco, Australia, Canada and Japan.

UK researchers will be able to lead project consortia and participate in the same way as their EU counterparts, applying for funding from the European Research Council and several other bodies. The exception is the EIC Funds, meaning that start-ups and SMEs won’t have access to loan or equity funding via the EU, although they can apply for grants from the EIC Accelerator.

In the past, the UK has been a large beneficiary of EU research and innovation funding, landing nearly a quarter of the grants awarded by the seven-year Horizon 2020 programme. With a research budget of €95.5 billion at stake (plus associate country contributions), it was reported that the EU were concerned that the UK may win more in grants than it contributes to the programme. On the other hand, after the Brexit vote the UK’s success in funding applications declined.

The protocol addresses this by tying the UK in to an automatic top-up, should it win more than 8% above what it pays in for two consecutive years. Should the UK’s funding success rate drop significantly, the first course of action will be to ‘try and improve the level of UK participation’, with the UK’s contribution only being reviewed should there be a 16% imbalance.

However, one of Horizon Europe’s articles states there may be ‘very limited exceptional reasons’ where participation may be limited to member states only, or legal entities established in specific associated or third countries. This has led to calls by the League of European Research Universities (among others) for the inclusion of the UK, Switzerland, and Israel to be included in the list of preferred partners in research and innovation, after concern that they may be excluded from quantum and space projects.

The Horizon Europe programme was formally approved on 12 May 2021, with funding applied retroactively to 1 Jan 2021. Formal associations are now in progress, although there is expected to be no further negotiation to the Trade and Cooperation Agreement agreed in principle with the UK on 24 December 2020.

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