Learning Hub

How Brexit may affect the UK education sector

The Director General of the Russell Group, Wendy Piatt, who represents Britain’s top universities, warned that £500m worth of education and research grants won by British educational establishments from the European Union would be put at risk by Britain leaving the EU. Dr Piatt said she did not expect that money to be replaced by funding from Whitehall were it to be lost after the referendum due to constraints on the public finances.

The heads of 103 universities recently issued an open letter expressing how they were “gravely concerned” about the impact of a Leave vote on their universities and students, cautioning voters that the power of their universities on local communities and economy “should not be underestimated.”
The signatories added: “Every year, universities generate over £73 billion for the UK economy – £3.7bn of which is generated by students from EU countries while supporting nearly 380,000 jobs. Strong universities benefit the British people – creating employable graduates and cutting-edge research discoveries that improve lives.”

The UK leads other European nations in winning grants from the European Research Council, the EU-backed body that supports scientific and technological research, with 23% of all ERC funding going to British universities. The Russell Group’s members, meanwhile, attract 18% of ERC funding – more than all of the universities in Germany or France, and more than universities in Spain and Italy combined. This helps feed into a sector of the economy that, as a whole, punches vastly above its weight on the international stage.

The UK has just 1% of the world’s population and just 4% of its researchers but, according to Dr Piatt’s organisation, earns 12% of international citations and produces 16% of the world’s most-cited research papers. That’s why, as an export earner, Britain’s universities are reckoned to generate some £1.86bn for the UK annually and 19,000 jobs.

But a Leave vote could have other implications for Britain’s universities. Many staff come from the EU and so do the students they teach – despite an increased drive to recruit from China, India and other emerging market economies. Those overseas students and the money they pay, in turn, help to keep down the fees paid by British students. Moreover, on graduation, a lot of them remain in the UK to make a further contribution to the UK economy – one reason why the business sector has been lobbying for more lenient treatment for students from China and elsewhere when applying for visas.

Universities UK (UUK), the higher education action group which is “the voice of universities,” expressed its disappointment considering the group had vigorously campaigned for the union to remain. UUK president, Julia Goodfellow, said on Friday morning that, although this is “not an outcome we wished or campaigned for,” UUK respects the decision of the UK electorate. Urging those within the sector to bear in mind that a Brexit will not happen overnight, she said: “There will be a gradual exit process with significant opportunities to seek assurances and influence future policy.”

But what does the result mean now for the country’s 100-plus institutions? Goodfellow has ensured that, throughout the transition period, UUK’s focus will be on securing support that allows the nation’s universities to continue to be global in their outlook, internationally-networked, and “an attractive destination” for talented people from across Europe. “These features are central to ensuring British universities continue to be the best in the world,” she said. Goodfellow added: “Our first priority will be to convince the UK Government to take steps to ensure staff and students from EU countries can continue to work and study at British universities and to promote the UK as a welcoming destination for the brightest and best minds. They make a powerful contribution to university research and teaching and have a positive impact on the British economy and society. We will also prioritise securing opportunities for our researchers and students to access vital pan-European programmes and build new global networks.”

The National Union of Students said it is “disappointed” with the results, particularly given the high proportion of young voters who are reported to have voted Remain. NUS president Megan Dunn said: “Higher education receives considerable funding from EU institutions, and this result will place significant pressures onto our universities. Students will be concerned that any removal of this funding could have implications for the support they receive, and this concern will, of course, be greatest for the most vulnerable students. Additionally, a vast number of projects on adult skills education are delivered for communities by colleges who will be rightly concerned about what will happen to this vital funding.”

Winning such research funding is increasingly important in an age where more Britons than ever are going on to higher education and in which successive governments have been trying to shift the way in which universities are funded from a dependence on taxpayers to a reliance on fees.