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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.

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 between £15,000–£25,000 per year for the same course.

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

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

What has the EU traditionally done 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, nearly a quarter of the staff at the University of Kent are from non-British EU countries.

Funding

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.

Research grants

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.

Research partnerships

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?

There's still a great deal of uncertainty over the outcome of Brexit. 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 the UK leaves the EU. 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 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'll be no immediate changes to the UK university sector's involvement in EU initiatives such as the Erasmus programme.

Possible outcomes

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

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.

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