Adieu, ni hao: can UK universities thrive in the post-Brexit world?


With the UK now less attractive to EU students, British universities have successfully pivoted to the Anglophone world and Asia, writes Ros Taylor. But in an increasingly fearful and isolationist world, this strategy is risky.

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UK universities are coping with additional fallout from Brexit, namely the EU’s withdrawal from the Erasmus+ scheme and the decision to charge EU students the same fees as those from the rest of the world.

Almost six years after Britain voted to leave the European Union and over two years since Boris Johnson announced he had ‘got Brexit done’, the repercussions of the decision continue to play out. Researchers who assumed that Britain’s participation in the Horizon Europe research programme was a done deal have discovered that funding was not, after all, guaranteed. Although the UK agreed to pay £15 billion over seven years to participate in the scheme as an associate, the European Research Council is now withholding funds for 46 grants to researchers in the UK because of the dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol. The UK is not alone in being cold-shouldered: Switzerland, which has been negotiating its relationship with the EU for decades, will not be allowed to renew its own associate membership.

Researchers are frustrated, and some blame EU intransigence as much as Johnson’s dissimulation over Northern Ireland. ‘Keep science out of Europe’s post-Brexit arguments,’ pleaded Nature. The 46 projects affected include medical research at the Francis Crick Institute, the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and University College London. Many of these researchers are originally from the EU – in 2019, half of academic staff working in research had a non-UK nationality, with half of those from the Union - and there are fears they could take the projects to an EU institution in order to secure funding. Others are more sanguine. Nick Hillman of the Higher Education Policy Institute points out that only three per cent of UK research funding comes from EU programmes.

Upheaval in universities

The uncertainty comes at a difficult time for British universities. They have just suffered ten days of strikes by University and College Union members over cuts in pensions, pay and worsening working conditions. Students, many of whom were taught online for at least half their degree, are complaining about value for money. Indeed, some universities chose to reinstate blended or online learning in January 2022, the month before the UK revoked all its COVID laws. They also face the possibility of a cap on student numbers (which last applied in 2013), which is intended to improve the quality of courses but could hit fee income.

Universities are also coping with additional fallout from Brexit, namely the EU’s withdrawal from the Erasmus+ scheme and the decision to charge EU students the same fees as those from the rest of the world. The financial hit to students who began an undergraduate course in 2021 is not small: whereas UK students pay annual fees of £9,250 and have access to student loans, EU entrants now pay between £23,000 and £34,000 at University College London, which hosts more international students than any other UK institution. The price of a BSc in computing science is now over £100,000, before living costs. For taught postgraduate students, who make up over half the international students in the UK, the difference is similarly stark. An MSc in the manufacture and commercialisation of stem cell and gene therapies costs home students £14,300; for others, it is £36,900. Applicants from the EU must now also apply for a student visa (£348).

Unsurprisingly, this led to a 56 per cent drop in EU students accepted for undergraduate courses beginning in autumn 2021. The fall in students from Eastern and Central Europe is even higher. This means that universities must rapidly pivot to attract more students from the United States, China, India and other countries with students who can afford a UK university education.

This strategy appears to be working. The number of non-EU international students went up from 313,000 in 2016 to 452,000 in 2020. A third are from China, followed by India. These students are more likely to be studying at postgraduate level. Early figures suggest that the pandemic has not affected recruitment as much as had been feared.

What has replaced Erasmus?

The decision to pull out of Erasmus+ was greeted with disappointment, particularly as Johnson had promised a year earlier that Britain would stay in the scheme. However, it was widely expected, as the programme had been characterised as a perk for middle-class students, whose language skills are often slightly better and who have the confidence to embark on a semester abroad. The UK was also perceived as getting a bad deal for the price of membership, since around half as many Britons went to the EU as EU students came to Britain. That calculation ignores the amount that EU students spend here, but the perception of Erasmus+ as elitist and a ‘Remainer’ project persisted, even though half the participants in 2019 were not in higher education at all.

To replace Erasmus+, the UK announced the new Turing Scheme to encourage students to study at universities all over the world, not just in the EU. The aim is to reduce the language barrier to studying abroad by working with more English-language institutions and to make the programme less daunting for participants – for example, by cutting the minimum length of a placement to four weeks and encouraging take-up in more deprived areas.

Turing is intended to help 35,000 students to study abroad each year and has a budget of £110 million for each of the first few years of operation. The United States has proved by far the most popular destination for universities, followed by China, Canada, Australia and France. It is not clear whether the more than 4,000 students due to travel to China, Hong Kong and Australia during the current academic year have been able to take up their placements, given these countries have been largely closed to immigration.

Critics point out that Turing money cannot be spent on tuition fees, so universities have to secure a waiver from institutions, which can be difficult; with Erasmus+, for example, all tuition fees are waived. Chatham House argued that Turing should offer incentives for young people to come to Britain to bolster the UK’s soft power, but this has not happened.

The risky strategy of deterring your neighbours

No one doubts that international students are an overwhelming asset to the UK. Their high fees subsidise higher education. According to Universities UK, the benefits of hosting them ‘significantly outweigh’ the costs, even when the cost to public services is taken into account. It estimates the net annual benefit at £25.9 billion, with £290 million in one Sheffield constituency alone. These benefits accrue no matter where students come from. As the government sees it, a growing middle class in India and China can make up for fewer students from the EU.

But recruiting more students from Asia carries its own risks. Perhaps the greatest uncertainty is the effect that the war in Ukraine, a cooling relationship with China and future COVID variants - or even pandemics - will have on student mobility. Will a fearful, more isolationist world make students more likely to stay at home? Will some non-science postgraduate courses pivot to cheaper, online teaching? Students may not enjoy it much, but universities are now in a better position to offer a decent online experience. Making it more difficult for students who live just a train ride or short flight away to study in Britain may turn out to have been a strategic mistake.