Exiting the EU: challenges and opportunities for higher education Contents



1.Higher education in the UK is a global success. UK universities are highly regarded worldwide—according to different rankings, there are either three or four universities in the world’s top 101—and produce world-class research. The UK is ranked first by field-weighted citation impact, an indicator of research quality, ahead of USA and other comparator countries2 and produces 15.9% of the world’s most highly-cited articles.3 The UK is the second-most popular destination in the world for international students.4 The higher education sector is valuable to the country: in 2011–12, universities generated an annual output of £73 billion for the UK economy, contributed 2.8% of GDP and supported over 750,000 jobs.5

2.The higher education sector in the UK has strong ties to the EU. Collaboration and co-operation between UK universities and institutions on the continent are facilitated by:

3.In June 2016, the UK voted to leave the European Union. On 29 March 2017, the Government formally notified the European Union of its intention to withdraw under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union.6 It is predicted this will happen before the end of March 2019. The result of the referendum has raised the question of how higher education will be affected by this profound change. There is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the consequences for higher education of the UK exiting the EU. There is also the prospect of new opportunities for UK higher education outside of the negotiations with the EU. Higher education is currently being reformed by the Higher Education and Research Bill making its way through Parliament.7 Although we did not take evidence on its impact, we note that this wide-ranging Bill creates extra uncertainty for the sector during the Brexit negotiations.

Our inquiry

4.We launched our inquiry on 29 September 2016. We received 197 written submissions from a wide range of sources, including close to 40 universities.8 We took oral evidence away from Westminster on three occasions, at the University of Oxford, University College London and Northumbria University, and heard from a range of witnesses, including university leaders, academics, and student and staff representatives. In December 2016 we held an engagement event at London South Bank University with higher education students and staff, which helped us inform our inquiry at an early stage.9 We also invited students enrolled on the Parliamentary Studies module10 at UK universities to conduct parallel inquiries and report back to us—the submissions can be found in full in Annex 2. We thank everyone who provided evidence.

5.Our inquiry builds on analysis from other sources, including from committees in both Houses. We decided that given the Government’s unwillingness to provide information in advance of the Article 50 process,11 a ministerial session would not be a fruitful exercise as part of this inquiry. We intend to invite the Government to give oral evidence in the near future to respond to this Report, at which point the picture—or parts of it—will be clearer.

The withdrawal process and the future relationship with the EU: possibility of ‘no deal’

6.The formal notification of the UK’s intention to withdraw from the European Union via Article 50 establishes a window of negotiation of two years on the terms of the exit. The Government has declared its intention to walk away from the negotiations if it does not find the final terms suitable.12 The Foreign Affairs Committee concluded in March 2017 that “there are many reasons why the negotiations might fail” and therefore “the possibility of ‘no deal’ is real enough to justify planning for it”.13 The prospect of ‘no deal’ with the EU creates serious uncertainties for the higher education sector in terms of residency, immigration, collaboration and membership of EU programmes. Universities need time to plan. The higher education sector cannot stand still in the two year negotiating period, with no understanding of what the future might look like, without jeopardising its global success. Given ‘no deal’ is both possible and could have serious consequences for higher education, the Government will need to consider contingencies or it will be failing in its duty to protect the sector.

7.On Wednesday 15 March 2017, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, Rt Hon David Davis MP, told the Committee on Exiting the European Union that he had briefed the Cabinet on the need for contingency planning.14 There is a need for effective working between the Home Office and the two Departments responsible for higher education—Education and Business, Energy and the Industrial Strategy—as planning by the former would be significant for student and staff migration in a ‘no deal’ situation. A clear plan would provide valuable reassurance to universities and allow the sector to prepare during this uncertain period.

8.The Department for Education, in co-operation with the Home Office and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, should publish a contingency plan for higher education to prepare for a ‘no deal’ situation. This plan should set out clear proposals to ensure potential risks are mitigated.

9.In our Report we make recommendations for negotiation priorities, contingency planning, and opportunities.

1 QS; ‘QS World University Rankings 2016–17,’ accessed 30 March 2017; Times Higher Education, ‘World University Rankings 2016–17,’ accessed 30 March 2017

3 As above

4 Universities UK, International higher education in facts and figures (June 2016) p 4

5 Universities UK, The impact of universities on the UK economy (April 2014) p 4

6 HC Deb, 29 March 2017, col 251

7 The Bill proposes that a new body— UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)—will be a single body condensing all seven Research Councils, Innovate UK and the research functions of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). The Bill also proposes to introduce the Teaching Excellence Framework, a mechanism to assess the quality of teaching in higher education institutions in England, and proposes changes to the regulatory framework in which universities operate. See Higher Education and Research Bill [Bill 112 (2016–17)]

8 In partnership with the Petitions Committee, we invited all signatories of petition 136595, ‘Maintain the Erasmus scheme despite Britain’s exit from the European Union’ for their views on our inquiry. This resulted in 70 written submissions.

9 Further details can be found in Annex 1.

10 The Parliament university programme encourages students to study Parliament, supports lecturers and tutors in the teaching of Parliament, and assists academics and researchers to engage with Parliament’s work and processes. Parliamentary Studies is a higher education module which is co-taught by university tutors and officials from the Houses of Parliament, and is formerly approved by the Houses of Parliament. See Parliament, ‘Universities programme,’ accessed 30 March 2017

11 See, for example, HC Deb, 07 December 2016, col 224

12 See, for example, Number 10, Speech: The Government’s negotiating objectives for exiting the EU, 17 January 2017; HM Government, The United Kingdom’s exit from and new partnership with the European Union,
Cm 9412, February 2017, p 65

13 Foreign Affairs Committee, Ninth Report of Session 2016–17, Article 50 negotiations: Implications of ‘no deal’, HC 1077, paras 56, 60

14 Oral evidence taken before the Exiting the EU Committee on 15 March 2017, HC (2016–17) 815, Q1381

21 April 2017