Universities are worried about a no-deal Brexit – should they be?

SOURCE: Isabel Infantes / AFP
Activists display a model of Big Ben and EU flags outside the Houses of Parliament in central London on September 4, 2019.

By U2B Staff 

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It will come as no surprise that universities in the UK are worried about the impending likelihood of a no-deal Brexit. Just like almost every other industry, higher education is desperately trying to grapple with the implications, the changes and the mitigating measures needed once the October 31 deadline hits.

A new survey from Universities UK, released Monday, found that 80 percent of UK universities are either “very” or “extremely” concerned with what a no-deal means for the future of higher education in the country.

The level of concern remains remarkably high despite reassurances from the Conservative government that everything will be just fine. A government spokesperson told the Guardian, “this government is committed to making sure Britain is prepared for any circumstances related to Brexit” and reaffirmed the party’s commitment to “raise the investment in research and development and maintain the UK’s position as a science superpower in a post-Brexit world.”


But with limited reassurance from the new Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, and the outcome of Brexit remaining as mystifying now as it was three years ago, it’s no wonder institutions are beginning to get jittery.

With conflicting messaging coming from the government on one side, and the educators themselves coming from the other, who is to be believed? And what exactly do universities have to fear in a no-deal Brexit?

Collaboration, research & funding

UK universities lead the world in groundbreaking research and industry-shaping innovation. According to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, 76 percent of UK research is considered world-leading or internationally excellent.

But this could be at risk if the UK crashes out of the European Union without a deal.

Much of this research is carried out in collaboration with European institutions and with the help of EU funding. UK universities are the biggest beneficiaries of EU research funding, the main source of which is Horizon 2020, the money pot to aid innovation across the continent. British universities, researchers and businesses have received EUR8.8 billion in funding from the initiative.

The latest iteration of the fund is the EUR100 billion Horizon Europe fund, but there is no guarantee the UK will be able to access this without a pre-arranged deal.

With such inextricable links, it’s no wonder that 27 percent of the universities surveyed by Universities UK felt access to research programmes and funding would be impacted the most by a no-deal scenario.

no-deal brexit universities
Activists hold placards and wave EU flags as during an anti-government protest calling for the Prime Minister’s resignation, outside Downing Street in central London on September 7, 2019. Source: Daniel Leal-Olivas / AFP

The UK government has accepted the potentially devastating impact of this loss of funding, not just on future projects, but those running currently whose studies could be put in jeopardy thanks to the cutting off of funds.

To counter the potential damage, the government has committed to underwrite any payments from Horizon 2020 so that it covers grant applications for funding streams open to third country participation (i.e. multi-beneficiary grants) that are submitted after the UK leaves. It has also promised to underwrite Erasmus+ grants already agreed by exit day subject to existing projects being deemed “viable” to continue.

While there is some relief in these reassurances, the effects of Brexit on cross border research are already being felt.

The survey results indicate that more than 55 percent of universities have experienced a change in the level of collaboration with overseas partners. A study from University College London supports this finding.

Through an examination of the latest EU research funding data, researchers found a large drop in Russell Group universities running big European research collaborations. Numbers had dropped from 50 a year in 2016 to only 20 in 2018, showing that while the UK may still be involved in collaborations, they are no longer leading them.

EU Student Recruitment

With lingering uncertainty over the legal status and financial support for EU students in the UK, there has been understandable concern about the impact on enrolment figures.

For the academic year 2018-19, Russell Group universities reported a three percent drop in EU enrolment overall, and a nine percent drop in postgraduate recruitment – that’s on top of an earlier nine percent drop the previous year.

As the likelihood of a no-deal grows, the outlook for student enrolment coming from UK think tanks has been bleak. In January, the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) forecast a nearly 60 percent drop in EU enrolment if Britain leaves without a deal in place.


But initial figures suggest the outcome may not be as bleak as suggested. The number of international students from outside the EU jumped by nine percent in this year’s enrolment – a nice boost to soften the blow of any EU decline. But there was also a surprise increase in EU enrolment, only by one percent, but an increase all the same.

It is possible this was due, in part, to government assurances that any EU students on 2019 courses would be guaranteed home fee status and provided the standard financial support. The outcomes of a no-deal, in which these benefits will likely stop after this academic year, remain to be seen.

Brexit Shortages

Universities need more than just students to keep their doors open. While the threats to funding, collaboration, and student enrolments are grabbing all the headlines, the operational considerations of an institution are a lot less glamorous but no less essential to a college’s survival.

To see how Britain’s universities are preparing for the October 31 deadline, the Guardian spoke to a number of vice-chancellors and found institutions are stockpiling everything from lab chemicals and gases, down to food and toilet paper.

One VC explained simply that, while it may be unlikely, if their university runs out of toilet paper, they will “have to close and send everyone home,” and they’re not wrong.

universities no deal brexit
Anti-Brexit protesters with signs and EU flags lit up with fairy lights demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament in London on September 9, 2019 as MPs debate. Source: Tolga Akmen / AFP

While goods needed to stay open are essential, they are of less concern to universities than a commodity most central to their success – their staff.

Almost 60 percent of those universities surveyed said they have already lost existing or potential staff to overseas institutions as a result of Brexit. As the legal status and visa woes of those staff still remain unclear, this is only likely to intensify.

Almost all (93 percent) of universities have urged EU staff and students to secure pre-settled and settled status but with one in five UK university academics being EU nationals, there’s still a long way to go to ensure everyone’s status.

The good news is many universities are well on their way with preparations.

All universities say they have done some planning for a no-deal Brexit. Just over half of those say they are “fully” or “very” prepared. But that troublingly leaves 48 percent that has only “slightly” prepared.

While those who are less prepared may well be in for a shock come October 31, it’s still impossible to know exactly what will happen in the case of a no-deal Brexit.

But one thing is for sure – this is not what higher education wanted. As Professor Julia Buckingham, President of Universities UK and Vice-Chancellor of Brunel University London, said last week:

“There is no shying away from the fact that ‘no deal’ – whether this is [on 31 October] or further down the line – is not what our sector wants. The risks and challenges will be significant and could impact the sector for decades to come.”