Brexit and Higher Ed

Now that the vote’s in and I can no longer bury my head in disbelief, I’ve been doing a good bit of reading about the British Exit from the EU and particularly its implications for Higher Ed.

British academia seems to have been overwhelmingly in favor of staying a part of the EU. A poll conducted by Times Higher Ed found, “Nearly 90 percent of those working in British higher education will vote to remain in the European Union in the June 23 referendum.” On Monday, the vice-chancellors of 103 British universities published an open letter expressing their concerns over the (then possible) exit from the EU. The closing of the letter expressed expressed the joint sentiment succinctly, “For us it is crystal clear that our outstanding universities – and our students – are stronger in Europe.”

Students and younger people in general also voted to stay in the EU.


Many in the leave camp have relied on economic arguments. Boris Johnson has said repeatedly that England sends £350m to the EU each week, usually failing to note that much of that is returned in rebates and private spending. The Guardian estimated the total to be closer to £136m a week or £7.1bn annually. This is still a considerable amount of money, but is equivalent to only a quarter of 1% of the British GDP.

However many within the Higher Education system have pointed to the economic benefits that they receive from the European Union. Cambridge Professor Ross Anderson estimated that that university would lose £100m a year. The first £60m of that estimate was from EU grants and contracts while another £10m comes from teaching English as a second language. A study by Universities UK estimated that British universities as a whole received £836m in grants and contracts from the EU.

Citing the decreased matriculation of Scottish students sense their reclassification as ‘overseas students,’ Anderson suggested that the £100m was a conservative estimate and could be much worse if EU and foreign matriculation decreased. In the open letter from the vice-chancellors, they noted that EU students contributed £3.7bn annually to the British economy. Britain has the single largest share of grant-funded students from programs like Horizon 2020 of any EU member state. If Britain restricts the free-movement of EU citizens (surely part of the point of Brexit), it would likely lose even the possibility of external membership to such programs.

Faculty and Staff

In their coverage of Brexit, Nature reports that 15% of UK university staff come from the EU. The Times Higher Ed poll mentioned above found that an astounding 40% of respondents would consider leaving Britain in the case of Brexit passing. In an article published today by Times Higher Ed on a possible “Brain Drain,” David Price, vice-provost (research) at UCL, said that the vote was “likely to be a disaster for the long-term future for UK research and HE sector”.

The only positives that I’ve seen for higher education in relation to the Brexit are speculations that maybe some of the money that had been going to the EU will now be spent on Higher Education. While this is of course possible, there’s no actual evidence that it will happen or even policy proposals to encourage hope that anyone in parliament is thinking about it.

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