Project 3.5

Brexit, trade, migration and higher education

The aim of this project was to investigate the implications, implementation and consequences of Brexit for UK universities, including the effects in relation to migration, international education and financial sustainability.

About this project

This project was part of the ESRC’s The UK in a Changing Europe initiative which supported research into the relationship between the UK and the European Union (EU).

UK universities are extensively engaged in Europe, in collaborative research and infrastructure and through EU citizen staff and students. The UK’s departure from the EU has many potential consequences for UK universities and their staffing, research, international education and financial sustainability.

Brexit disrupted existing projects, networks and activities and led to sharp reductions in staff, students and/or income, in some or all universities. Universities had to make rapid and well-judged adjustments, build new relations and activity portfolios in Europe and beyond, and grapple with challenges to human resource management, risk management, financial sustainability, mission, governance and local implementation systems.

The project used empirical data to identify and better understand the specific challenges faced by the UK’s higher education sector. It focused on the capacity of UK universities to respond to these challenges, alongside the other changes during this period in regulatory structures, immigration policy, the management of teaching performance and the entry of new providers.

The generic research questions were:

  • What are the perceived implications of Brexit for UK universities as leaders and others see it?
  • What are the principal responses of universities and what are their capabilities to monitor, judge, strategise, respond, initiate and make internal changes, in relation to Brexit?
  • How do these factors vary by UK nation; university mission, status, resources; and discipline?

As well as possible scenarios within the universities themselves, the project looked at the perceived implications of Brexit in the context of universities’ broader relationships with local, national and European communities.

The research consisted of case studies in a selected group of universities incorporating sector differentiation in status, resources, European engagement as well as variations across the UK nations.

Policy implications

This project ws particularly relevant to policies concerning migration and trade. Higher education is closely affected by the policy settings for staff mobility, retention and recruitment. It is also affected by international student policy and regulation, which have consequences for tuition revenues and balance sheets.

The project highlighted blockages to policy implementation and strategic redirection. Individual university case studies will allow tracking of specific change processes.

Project methods

Case selection

In Phase 1 the 12 universities were selected using a modified version of the four vertically differentiated categories of UK higher education institutions (HEIs) identified by Boliver (2015).

Boliver uses cluster analysis establish distinctive university groupings based on research quantity and quality, student satisfaction with teaching, endowment and investment income, spending on academic services per student, student-staff ratios, academic and social selectivity of student intake, and outcomes for degree holders using four different measures.

Oxford and Cambridge occupied the first tier, most older universities were in the second tier and other public universities fell in tiers 3-4. In this project one university were drawn from tier 1 and at least two universities from tiers 2-4.

Boliver’s stratified groupings were used because of the potential for differential effects (e.g. in revenues and financial sustainability) in Brexit-related changes, for example a two-tier visa policy. In addition, there were universities from all four nations given potentials for national variation in the implications of Brexit; variation in tiers 2-4 in the extent of European engagement; and one private provider with a significant international student body. All universities covered health, technology, social science to facilitate comparison.

Interview data

The semi-structured interviews in Phase 2 included the academic leader (e.g. vice-chancellor), chair of governing body, executive leaders in research and international, chief financial officer, head of human resources, executive deans in three disciplines (health, technology, social science), about three research professors from these disciplines, and student union. Three months after completion of interviews, selected interviewees were sent an email questionnaire designed to track possible changes since the interviews, in the volatile setting.

Data collation and analysis

The 120-140 interviews were transcribed and hand-coded, and analysed using content categories, finalised in Phase I that will be derived from Stensaker et al (2014) on ‘Factors affecting strategic change in higher education’ and supplemented by others including Clark (1983), Marginson and Considine (2000), Shattock (2010), Deiaco et al (2012), Fumasoli et al (2015), Thoenig and Paradeise (2016).


Professor Simon Marginson
University of Oxford
Simon Marginson is Professor of Higher Education at the University of Oxford, founding Director of the ESRC/RE Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE), Joint Editor-in-Chief of Higher Education, and a Professorial Associate with the University of Melbourne. Simon’s research is focused primarily on global and international higher education, the global science system, higher education in East Asia, the contributions of higher education, and higher education and social inequality. Simon led CGHE’s project 8 which investigated the public good role of higher education in ten countries. The project found that while a broad notion of public good has been largely emptied out of policy in the English-speaking countries, where economic definitions of individualised pecuniary value are dominant, recognition of the broader individual and collective outcomes of higher education continues in different ways in other jurisdictions including France, Finland, South Korea and China. The study in England discovered however that despite the narrow economic framing used by Westminster policy makers, both higher education practitioners and policy professionals believe that higher education makes a large and multiple contribution to both national and global public goods.
William Locke
University of Melbourne
William Locke is Professor and Director of the Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne and was a CGHE Co-Investigator on the former Project 3.1, ‘Alternative, emerging and cross-border higher education provision and its relationship with mainstream provision’.
Vassiliki Papatsiba
University of Sheffield
Vassiliki Papatsiba is a Senior Lecturer in Higher Education at the University of Sheffield and was a CGHE Co-Investigator on the former Project 3.5, ‘Brexit, trade, migration and higher education’.
Ludovic Highman
UCL Institute of Education


CGHE webinar


Book chapter

Journal articles


Policy briefs

Research findings