8 October 2016
by Simon Marginson

Universities have a crucial post-Brexit role in working across borders

At first, after the June referendum, it was unclear what ‘Brexit’ meant, but the post-Brexit landscape is now emerging. Theresa May will table the complex bill to leave the EU in the House of Commons in March 2017, but the two most important decisions have already been made.

First, the Government will give priority to ending free people movement from Europe. Second, as confirmed by Home Secretary Amber Rudd this week, total net migration will fall. The referendum was decided because people opposed migration and it seems that for the Prime Minister both measures have become politically essential.

These decisions are truly momentous as they trigger both a harder Brexit and a tough medium term prospect for higher education and research. In the universities, where relations with Europe have been unambiguously positive and productive, the consequences of the 52/48 referendum margin will be every bit as difficult as predicted before the vote.

International mobility

The UK will establish a new migration programme in which people of all origins will be treated on a common basis, and high-skill migrants will be favoured. What happens to EU citizens in UK universities is unclear. Currently there are 43,000 EU-citizen staff and 125,000 EU students. Most current students will have completed their courses when Brexit is completed in March 2019. The government has not confirmed whether or what kind of residence rights will be given to EU staff. This may depend on whether there are reciprocal rights of residence for UK citizens now in Europe.

Closing down EU people movement means that the UK loses access to the single economic market in Europe. Even partial economic participation, as in Switzerland and Norway, depends on free movement. Hard Brexit directly undermines the UK finance sector in the City of London, the strongest British industry and one of two domains where the UK is a clear global leader. (The other is higher education.) UK-based finance will not only lose its role in trade in euros, it will almost certainly lose the special ‘passport’ that enables foreign banks and other companies in London to access the European market without needing separate licenses for each country. Thus Japan’s government has stated if the ‘passport’ is lost then Japanese banks will probably relocate, as will Hitachi, Honda, Nissan and Toyota, whose large plants in the UK are their entry to Europe. If the government is prepared to override the clear interests of the City, a more powerful interest than the UK’s universities, we should not be surprised if it fails to exempt higher education and research from Brexit.

In order to reduce net migration quickly the government is considering a large cut in fee-paying international student numbers – a figure of 30 per cent has been discussed. Currently almost one in five of all students in the UK is international. They are classified as temporary migrants. The reduction would be partly achieved by requiring EU students to pay the same fees as non-EU students: it is unlikely that as many EU students will flow from, say, Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany, given that they have excellent universities in their own countries and in the UK would have to pay £12,000-20,000 or more upfront in fees. A large cut in numbers would also affect non-EU international students. When Home Secretary and in charge of immigration policy, Theresa May stated that universities in the UK should develop new business models with less dependence on revenue from international education.

International students currently supply an estimated £17.5 billion to the UK economy. Any reduction of international student numbers and revenues will be felt most harshly by universities positioned lower down in the status order of higher education. Indeed, Amber Rudd’s announcement that major new restrictions on overseas students will be introduced included a multi-tiered student visa system tied to course quality.

While the international education sector has long called for students to be taken out of the migration target this now looks unlikely. Cutting international students is disruptive and costly but much the easiest way to reduce total migration. For international education the main positives are that in the longer term, a migration regime that gives priority to high skills will encourage internationals to stay on by liberalising graduate work visas; and if EU student numbers drop far enough, policy may become more welcoming to non-Europeans.


Blockages in cross-border mobility have negative consequences for research. Currently more than half of all doctoral students in the UK are foreign born. In addition, it now looks highly unlikely that UK universities will retain membership of the mainstream European research schemes. UK universities currently receive £1 billion a year via Horizon 2020, the European Institute of Innovation and Technology and other programmes. The UK spends only 0.44 per cent of its GDP on research in higher education, well below investments in northwestern Europe, and 19.7 per cent of all UK R&D money is sourced from outside the country, mostly through European funding. This is Europe’s second highest level of dependence on international revenues, after Ireland. A reduction in net resources for research is likely to be felt especially harshly in leading and middle-level universities.

The net effect of retarding people movement and taking the UK out of combined research teams will be to reduce the flows of knowledge and weaken both UK and European research. It is likely that strenuous efforts will be made to retain limited UK access to European research, particularly in STEM. Some in government are aware of the potential damage to science, and there will be special efforts made to secure good terms in key areas like doctoral student mobility. The government has guaranteed the equivalent of Horizon 2020 funding until 2019, although what really matters is what happens after 2019. In social science research there are special concerns because the strong British performance in Horizon 2020 has been crucial in compensating for domestic underfunding.

Certain UK universities, possibly with official support, will work hard to build bilateral and university-to-university infrastructure in Europe – though bilateral infrastructures are both more expensive overall and unable to deliver European Research Area scale. Brexit will trigger increased UK collaboration with the fast-rising research systems of China and East Asia, which together command more R&D funding than either Europe or North America. In the long run, focus on Asia could be very positive. In the short run it is a significant challenge. The intensity of collaborative publication between UK researchers and their counterparts in China, Japan and Korea is much lower than is the case with European researchers.

Hard Brexit, growing migration resistance elsewhere in Europe and the Trump campaign in the US, signals a new and more unstable era of politics. In Brexit the problem was not that universities failed to make the case for internationalisation and collaboration. The problem was that other factors were more potent. The tensions associated with global engagement are now more intense than before. Governments and populations will no longer always ‘go with the flow’, even in the interests of prosperity.

In this environment, on a bad day, the national context imposes limits on what research and universities can do. It is therefore vital to reach out to our colleagues abroad, to find ways to go beyond those limits. Universities have a crucial role to play in working across borders, in sharing each other’s spaces, in building collaboration and understanding, and in applying dispassionate human intelligence to solving the many problems before us. Brexit makes it harder but will not stop UK and European universities from working together.