How Brexit could affect universities and students

Source: Descrier via Flickr

By Ellise Nicholls

Although the referendum debate has so far been characterised by immigration, trade and legislative powers, it’s important to consider the significant effect on universities and students within the UK and throughout Europe, specifically in terms of higher education.

The EU’s legislation on free movement of citizens simplifies the process of studying abroad for both UK and EU students, allowing British school leavers the option to study in Rome, Germany and France at no extra cost. Free movement allows eligible students the same rate of fees and the ability to apply for the same financial support as nationals within the country.

Universities UK argued that the number of EU citizens studying in the UK stands at around 125,000, which is estimated to have contributed a respectable £2.7 billion to the UK economy and creating 19,000 jobs. Also to note that if a Brexit were to occur, student mobility schemes such as the Erasmus programme are placed at risk.

In terms of fees, residents of EU nations are usually able to study in other EU nations as ‘home students’. Compared to fees charged to international students, home fees tend to be lower, or even non-existent. In the UK, international students can expect to pay £12,000 – £25,000 per year for the same course. Given that most UK universities charge £9,000 per year, an EU student could typically save £18,000 – £48,000 over the course of a three year undergraduate degree.

Whilst remain campaigners consider the potentiality of the a drop in students applying to UK universities, leave campaigns have said they do not think it would be a deterring factor. Jamie Martin, a Brexit campaigner and former government education advisor, wrote last month “This would create a windfall for universities that could be spent on scholarships for the brightest or help students from poorer backgrounds.” Vote Leave further argue that the stronger economy as a result of Brexit would fund apprenticeships and training.

As a leading global centre for research, UK universities are largely dependent on the EU’s financial contributions to research, which is estimated to be around £1.2 billion a year (Universities UK). Bigger universities with larger research budgets are dependent on EU sources for a sizeable minority of research funds, however newer universities tend to rely heavily on EU funded grants.

The University of Cambridge receives almost a quarter of its research funding from the EU, whilst the University of Oxford receives around a fifth. Southampton Solent University receives over 91% of its competitive grant research income from the EU alone. Swansea University recently opened a new science and innovation campus at a cost of $475 million- something that would not have been possible without the financial support of the EU.

So whilst the UK does pay membership to the EU, the financial return on UK universities reflects a profit. Hence in the event of a Brexit, UK universities, especially newer ones, could be forced into a vulnerable position.

Britain’s own national research budget falls below international averages, and Britain’s dependency on EU research funding has meant that Europe’s share of UK universities total income has risen by around 30% in five years.

Additionally, funding from the prestigious research programme the European Research Council (ERC) is allocated on the basis of research excellence. UK research has, so far, secured over 20% of all ERC funds, and between 2007 – 2013, four UK institutions were among the 10 most successful recipients.

On the leave side employment minister Priti Patel told the Today programme last week “There would be more than enough money to ensure that those who now get funding from the EU, including universities would continue to get money.”

A further benefit to EU membership is the ability for the UK to form and collaborate with increasingly global teams of researchers. In the world of academia, it is considered that the best research is done by people working internationally.

Britain has the highest proportion of the most highly-cited scientific research articles standing at 15.9% (above the United States), of which is made all the more impressive considering that the UK has just 0.9% of the world’s population. Furthermore, 14% of academic staff come from EU nations

Whilst the EU plays some part whether big or small in these circumstances, the event of a Brexit wouldn’t necessarily be detrimental to all of the above. Instead, any Brexit deal would be determined under the terms of the Lisbon Treaty.

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