Exiting the EU: challenges and opportunities for higher education Contents

Annex 2: Students’ inquiries into the impact of exiting the European Union on higher education

In co-operation with the Universities Programme of the Houses of Parliament, we asked university students enrolled on Parliamentary Studies’ modules to run parallel inquiries and report their findings back to us. We advertised this opportunity to Parliamentary Studies tutors at a wide range of universities.

We received two submissions from students from the University of Leeds and the University of Reading.

University of Leeds: Students’ perspectives on the impact of exiting the European Union for higher education

Rebecca Earl (International History & Politics student at the University of Leeds) and Roxanne Tajbakhsh (Medical student at the University of Leeds).

We are submitting this evidence from the perspective of university students after supplementing our pre-considered notions with research compiled from a questionnaire and a focus group of University students. The sample covered both EU and UK students, studying at universities across the country. This research reflects the primary, immediate concerns of current university students, which we believe to have not been covered by previous report submissions. After analysing the results, we have concluded on three recommendations:

  1. Clear dissemination of Brexit outcomes (with an emphasis on outlining anticipated positives and negatives of negotiations) through institutional means, rather than directly from government.
  2. Safeguarding of current EU students’ immigration statuses, with imperative efforts made to similarly protect those of future EU students; meanwhile, protecting UK students from future exploitation.
  3. The use of new post-Brexit markets to the advantage of the UK higher education system, establishing analogous schemes to that of Erasmus+.

1. Clear Communication

A sense of cynical uncertainty for the future of the UK higher education system was prominent amongst our respondents. The majority of our participants held the view that Brexit would directly and negatively impact upon educational opportunities in the following manner: research opportunities (76%); work prospects (75%); post-graduate opportunities (67%). Whilst negative views associated with Brexit may be unsurprising to find within the student community, it was clear that this lack of certainty is breeding an undercurrent of fear, with our focus group expressing worries of the impact on UK higher education institution’s reputations, as the following quote shows:

“I think that there is cause for concern with moving out of EU - we may lose interest from European students. This will reduce diversity which is important in building a strong learning community and also money. This brings in further danger of higher fees, heading towards similar expense that we see in America”.

Moreover, our research revealed an alarming trend with students feeling disconnected and therefore isolated from the Brexit result. To directly address both these issues simultaneously we suggest the engagement of students through opening communication channels via their educational institutions whilst negotiations take place. It was raised during the focus group that, unfortunately, due to the manner in which the Leave Campaign was carried out, many are feeling disengaged with official communications from government. Thus, it was suggested that if documents pertaining to the foreseeable positive and negatives of Brexit were released via universities to their own students, it would promote an engaged, critical thinking approach towards the matter, rather than a preconceived one of disdain. This notion was further developed with the suggestion of non-traditional mediums of communication, for example, an educational video covering the key aims of Brexit negotiations and their potential impact on UK higher education, as opposed to a simple published manifesto. In ensuring better channels of communications directly with students through alternative mediums, we believe, will directly ease anxieties and dispel any culture of trepidation currently formulating amongst the student body.

2. Safeguarding of the immigration status of current and future EU students

Half of our EU student respondents expressed that the referendum result had negatively impacted upon their considerations of studying in the UK, with the other half expressing that it had no effect; no respondent expressed a positive effect. Both the comments from our questionnaire and focus group explicitly stated that a primary concern for students would be the introduction of lengthy, costly visas - making an ever growing UK market less accessible to the EU population. Concerns were expressed two-fold:

This is why we propose that the student demographic be exempt from any immigration legislation changes, making the protection of the immigration status of current EU students paramount.

3. The use of new post-Brexit markets for higher education initiatives

Concern for the Erasmus+ programme appeared as a recurring theme throughout our research. Students stressed the importance the Erasmus+ programme in ensuring a well-rounded and positive university experience. Following the decision to exit the European Union, students have highlighted anxieties for the resulting demographic of the UK student body as the Erasmus+ programme not only encouraged UK students to travel abroad to the EU, but promoted a diverse and interesting student population with the placement of continental students in the UK system. Whilst we view that the protection of the Erasmus+ programme during exit negotiations would be a positive step to safeguard the excellent opportunities open to UK students, we believe that the furtherance of programme directly linked with the Brexit result would greatly benefit the UK higher education system.

Our research showed that certain markets such as the USA, or other commonwealth countries, such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, hold a great deal of interest for current UK students. We believe that the immediate instigation of similar programmes to that of Erasmus+ with other countries beyond the EU market could invert one of the greatest European loses, to be one of the largest global gains for UK higher education institutes.

University of Reading: Evidence for the House of Commons Education Select Committee on the impact of exiting the European Union on higher education

Submission Team

Evidence compiled by students of the University of Reading’s Politics & International Relations Department through the PO3PAR and PIM84 Parliamentary Studies modules, supported by Dr Mark Shanahan, module convener and Director of Teaching & Learning for Politics & IR.

Authors: Sarah Awachi, Dan Bull, Holly Gibbs, Max Lange, Harry Maybrick, Taylor Matthews, Katie Price, Hannah Ritchie, Julianna Suess, Ben Tiplady, supported by Dr Mark Shanahan.

Summary of evidence

Between Jan 10 and Jan 17, 2017 (building on a survey launched on December 8, 2016), a group of final year undergraduate and taught postgraduate students from the Department of Politics & International Relations at the University of Reading surveyed fellow students; directly and indirectly affected academic staff and key voices within the university in response to the questions posed by the Select Committee. The following short report reflects the views of those questioned/surveyed. It is the work of a particular student group within the PO3PAR and PIM84 parliamentary Studies modules, and while endorsed by the Parliamentary Studies Module Convener within the Department of Politics and International Relations, is not a formal document of the university.

Student survey—highlights

  1. 68% of students who responded to our survey think Brexit will have a mostly negative or slightly negative effect on their studies.
  2. 15% of students think that Brexit will have a slightly positive or mostly positive effect on their studies.
  3. 84% of students want to see a continuation of the Erasmus scheme.
  4. On Changes to freedom of movement: students think this will result in:
    1. Difficulty in studying abroad
    2. Potential difficulty in gaining/pursuing careers within the EU area
    3. Difficulty in student travel in EU during summer breaks.
    4. Negative impact on students’ ability to take academic trips to Europe as part of their studies.
  5. Top priorities post-Brexit for students were:
    1. Allowing freedom to study across national borders (58.2%)
    2. Not increasing tuition fees (54.3%)
    3. Maintenance of quality of education in the UK (52.2%)
  6. Many students were interested in being able to attract lecturers from outside the EU. Science & agriculture students very concerned about lack of EU grants. Smaller universities in particular (non–Russell Group) very worried about remaining competitive. Support for ‘fast track’ visa system for academic staff. The ability for inter-university collaboration is also a concern, post-Brexit.
  7. Measures to mitigate risks of Brexit: Keep Erasmus; stay in single market; freedom of movement and right to work protection; protection of current international students.
  8. Opportunities available to students because of Brexit:
    1. Agricultural policies changing to benefit of UK
    2. Improved US and China links
    3. Weaker environmental regulation
    4. Strengthened links with Commonwealth.

Additional stakeholder comments

Mr John Brady, HR Director, University of Reading

There is great uncertainty among academic staff at the University of Reading concerning their long-term career options and opportunities, seeing as a significant number of current staff are EU nationals. We recognize destabilised position of existing EU staff, particularly those who have been in residence in the UK for less than five years, recognizing the inclination of some to reconsider their position with the University. As Director of Human Resources, I anticipate a decline in EU applicants and therefore am concerned regarding the impact this may have on the quality of future applicants.

In line with this expectation, following the referendum, the University has already witnessed instances of declined appointments by prospective staff. My department is part of a university-wide working group, which is actively monitoring the immediate and long-term impact of Brexit and offering practical recommendations to faculty. These recommendations, however, are limited due to the lack of Government reassurances. This concerns prospective difficulties in faculty entering and remaining in the UK, most notably limitations on the freedom of movement, restrictions on dependants, and possible restrictive visa regimes and the resultant costs.

It is worth noting too for the record that following the referendum result, a small number of faculty and other staff have reported incidents of hostility they have faced beyond our campus grounds.

Current EU Academics Employed in the University and EU Student Groups

Academics (sourced through 1:1 interviews conducted on Jan 16 &17)

With regards to the effects Brexit may have on higher education in the UK, the main source of concern for academics at the University of Reading lies in the area of research funding. By leaving the European Union the previous ability for academics across the United Kingdom and at Reading to compete for research grants offered by the European Research Council (ERC) will become greatly diminished. From the period 2007–2013 the UK was ranked second in the EU for the amount of funding researchers in British higher education received–amounting to €6.9 billion out of a total €55.4 billion162. If, upon leaving the EU, academics in the UK–British nationals, European nationals, and others included - face more difficulty in obtaining grants and funding for their research, they will most likely seek to alternatives in other EU countries. This could possibly lead to a haemorrhage of academics from the UK, particularly but not limited to EU academics, who decide instead to work elsewhere within the Union, where the chances and opportunities to compete for such financial assistance would be greater. It is feared that if “a citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere” then the global links and lives many academics lead in pursuing their research will instil a mentality that academics from the EU and Britain do not belong, or are not part of the UK or its wider community. This is arguably the biggest disincentive for EU and non-EU academics and researchers to remain working and contribute to rich nature of higher education in the UK.

With more barriers for world-class researchers to work and receive academics funding in the UK, higher education in British Institutions will take a substantial hit. The quality and rigour of the research output of universities and other higher education institutions would most likely drop, deterring not only academics from working at such institutions, but also the number of students from within the EU who have the opportunity to study at a British university via the Erasmus + scheme.

From 2007 to 2013 the United Kingdom had the highest number of participating countries submitted as partners or coordinators to the Erasmus + scheme, meaning that the UK had the most number of links with other EU universities as part of a placement programme–totalling 1,200 institutions.163

EU Students

Amongst the EU students currently enrolled at the University of Reading, the main concern arising from Brexit’s effects on higher education in the UK concern the loss of the Erasmus + scheme and the wider chances to study and work in Britain. Many fear that the scheme will be either lost or significantly reduced, so as to remove many of the benefits of studying abroad without the need for a visa. By having to pay additional fees on top of the tuition fees, which themselves may increase in line with those of international students, many EU students currently enrolled at the University of Reading express their concerns that ease of access to some of the best universities in the world was a significant factor in their choice to study abroad in the UK.

Reading University Student Union

Sahadey Joshi, Diversity Officer

In this post-Brexit world we have seen hate crimes on the rise and people feel justified in spreading hate against migrants and international people. This is having a negative effect on UK campuses as students from the EU and the wider world are scared as to what is going to happen. When Britain does leave the EU, I am fearful that universities will lose their international students and therefore these multicultural, amazing learning environments will be lost. I also think that companies that are invested in the UK Education system by offering scholarships and bursaries may start to look at other countries instead, because British graduates may not be as desirable as they once were.

Ben Cooper, President

The referendum result has caused some uncertainty in HE. Universities and students alike wait for government, and EU developments that will further define what the system looks like for international students, fees and research. However, one thing is certain, the United Kingdom looks a vastly less friendly place for international student to study at a first glance. However, universities are doing everything they can to show the world that the UK is still an open, international and outward looking society.

Having said that we are now in uncertain times, Brexit may provide HE institutions with an opportunity to expand into new international waters to find new and exciting research and teaching on a European and global scale. It is important to note that Brexit does not mean the UK should or has become isolationist. Now more than ever the HE institutions in the UK should engage with the rest of the world.

Academic course representatives (across Humanities and Social Sciences)

A consultation with Student Representatives, at both undergraduate and postgraduate level delivered the following conclusion. It is clear that there is concern following the Brexit decision regarding continuing opportunities for students to study abroad as part of their course. Some of the main issues that have arisen from this are:

Student representatives also raised concerns about the ability of the university to attract EU students after Brexit, citing similar reasons such as cost (fees) and ease of travel. On a practical level, several representatives raised concerns regarding the ability of the university to continue progressing as a research-based institution, with the main concerns surrounding the appeal the university will have to European lecturers and the knock on affect this might have on the quality of research and the appeal of the university to draw the best students.

Finally, a small number of students were concerned with the rhetoric that has surrounded Brexit and how this might impact current and future overseas students who attend university. Whilst the university is strongly against racism and xenophobia, fears have been raised about how the fallout might affect campus society and overseas students as a result.

Reading University Politics & International Relations Society

The Reading University Politics and International Relations Society is an academic society through which students are able to interact in debates on current affairs. The society President commented:

‘The United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union will, over the course of time, affect a wide range of government policy areas, which will likely include EU research grants and ERASMUS students in the Higher Education sector. As Sir David Bell (University Vice-Chancellor) has previously stated however: ‘for the moment, it is business as usual’ for Reading University and practically all other institutions, as we enter the negotiation stage of our withdrawal from the EU. It would be foolish to predict or assume therefore how HE may be affected, when not only is the British Government’s negotiating on HE not known, but there is no clear understanding of what deal the EU is willing to give the UK over bargaining chips such as research grants, or the ability of UK students to study in EU countries for certain lengths of time”.


While opportunities undoubtedly exist for the UK HE sector in a post-Brexit world, the conclusion from the submission group at the University of Reading is:

162 The Royal Society.org, ‘How much research funding does the UK get from the EU and how does this compare with other EU countries?’, The Royal Society, London, 2017, https://royalsociety.org/topics-policy/projects/uk-research-and-european-union/role-of-EU-in-funding-UK-research/how-much-funding-does-uk-get-in-comparison-with-other-countries/ (accessed January 2017)

163 European Commission, Erasmus: Facts, Figures and Trends, Luxembourg, Publications Office of the European Union, 2015, http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/education_culture/repository/education/library/statistics/erasmus-plus-facts-figures_en.pdf (accessed January 2017)

21 April 2017