Project 3.5

Brexit, trade, migration and higher education

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

Project team

  • Simon Marginson, University of Oxford
  • William Locke, UCL Institute of Education
  • Vassiliki Papatsiba, University of Sheffield
  • Ludovic Highman, UCL Institute of Education


This project is part of the ESRC’s The UK in a Changing Europe initiative which supports 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.

Whatever form Brexit takes, it is likely to disrupt existing projects, networks and activities and could imply sharp reductions in staff, students and/or income, in some or all universities. Universities will need 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 will use empirical data to identify and better understand the specific challenges faced by the UK’s higher education sector. It will focus 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 are:

  • 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 will look at the perceived implications of Brexit in the context of universities’ broader relationships with local, national and European communities.

The research will consist 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 is 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 will highlight blockages to policy implementation and strategic redirection. Individual university case studies will allow tracking of specific change processes.