UK universities and the ‘Brexit effect’

  • How will things change when Brexit finally arrives next March, and how concerned should potential Hong Kong applicants be?
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 November, 2018, 10:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 November, 2018, 12:29pm

Are you as confused as I am by all the Brexit news: Hard Brexit, Soft Brexit, No Deal, Back Stop, No Back Stop? Nearly two and a half years on from the referendum, it seems that clarity regarding Britain’s departure from the EU is as elusive as ever. The 21-month transition period up to the end of December 2020 recently agreed on by negotiators only seems to prolong the agony. Higher education has not escaped from that uncertainty and the worries that go with it.

What UK universities have always known is where their worries lie: in EU student enrolment; in recruitment and retention of EU staff – teaching, research and ancillary – and in research partnerships and funding from the EU.

So, how is it panning out?

EU Student Enrolment

There are an estimated 135,000 EU students currently attending UK universities. The free movement of people within the EU and, in particular, the fact that EU students enjoy “home” fee status and accessibility to student loans, has encouraged a growth in such numbers. EU students are also attracted by the strong reputation of certain UK universities and these enrolment numbers tend to be highest by percentage in the elite Russell Group universities.

As yet, these numbers haven’t fallen significantly because the “home” fees and loans have been guaranteed for the duration of their courses for those enrolling up to and including the 2019/20 academic year. That doesn’t remove the uncertainty of what will happen post-Brexit, when EU students have to pay international fees that are at least twice as high, with no access to loans; not to mention stricter immigration controls. Once that is the case, talented and relatively affluent EU students will look more carefully at the other options open to them in the rest of Europe, Canada, Australia and the US.

Not surprisingly, MillionPlus an association of 20 UK universities, has called upon the government to introduce a reciprocal fee arrangement with European universities, once Brexit takes effect.

EU Teaching and Research Staff

EU academics currently make up 17 per cent of the staff in UK universities and the proportion is closer to 25 per cent in the more selective research institutions. As Stuart Croft, Vice-Chancellor of Warwick University emphasised in a recent article in The Guardian, “We are desperate to preserve those intellectual connections across the continent as they have been so important in defining what we are as universities. We are open, engaged European universities. It is part of our DNA.” He also pointed out some of the more practical difficulties such as patenting joint innovations when intellectual property regulations are different, post-Brexit.

Some reports show rising numbers of EU academics resigning from UK universities already. On a micro-level, one can understand that young EU researchers with families now see the UK as an uncertain career option; something not helped by the fall in the pound post-referendum and the relative attraction of other overseas destinations.

To try to counter this and the drain of EU talent as a whole, the UK government has recently introduced the EU Settlement Scheme, open on 31 March 2019, whereby EU nationals and their families can apply for either settled or pre-settled status in the UK.

In another countermove reported by the BBC in October, Imperial College has signed a partnership with the Technical University of Munich whereby academic posts will be jointly recruited and shared by both universities. Others may well follow suit.

Research Funding

While most Brexiteers bemoan the fact (true or otherwise) that EU membership and funds are stacked in the favour of those on the continent, the four biggest recipients of EU Research funding in recent years are all from the UK: Oxford, Cambridge, UCL and Imperial. The UK as a whole has received 11 billion euros from the Horizon 2020 programme since 2014, at a time of reduced funding from the UK government.

The ‘Bigger Picture’?

Peter Scott, of UCL’s Institute of Education, in his November 6 article in The Guardian, refers to the effects above as serious “collateral damage” but adds that “the existential damage of Brexit is the real, and enduring, threat. Put simply, thanks to Brexit the UK – or, to be fair to the Scots, England – has now been labelled a nasty country. In the world’s imagination, we are linked to Trump, Orbán, Putin and the rest, as another example of right-wing populism. This toxic reputation will undermine the advantages UK universities have: excellent universities, vibrant culture and, still, an open, democratic and pluralist society. How many international students will want to come and study in post-Brexit Britain? How many international scholars and scientists will choose to make their careers here? Fewer, because of Brexit”.

Is Scott being too alarmist? Have international applicants made this decision already?

The statistics to date indicate otherwise, with UCAS reporting applications from outside the EU up 11 per cent, the EU up 3 per cent but those from the UK itself down 3 per cent and overall down 1 per cent compared to 2017. The EU figure is interpreted by some as a pre-Brexit rush.

The concerns of UK universities in terms of international student numbers are more about making up for lost domestic revenue and getting their rightful share of a growing international market. Whether that brings greater cultural diversity and richness to the campus depends on keeping a genuine mix; something a sharp reduction in EU students cannot help.

SCMP’s Peace Chiu reported last month on the push by UK universities for post-study visa reform to improve the chances of international students staying on to work in the UK. That reflects genuine concern about international recruitment in a market where the likes of Canada and New Zealand offer a much better deal in that respect.

Ironically, the refusal of the UK’s Conservative government to remove international students from immigration statistics may have swelled the anti-immigration vote in the 2016 Brexit Referendum.

The Bottom Line

Hong Kong’s love for UK higher education seems undiminished, at least for now. Our hard-working and bright students will find UK universities as receptive as ever to their applications, perhaps even more so post-Brexit. The richness of the experience once you get there is, in my opinion, the open question that only time can answer.