The Impact of Brexit

What Does Brexit Mean for those leading the marketing and management of UK universities?


Whilst it is true that there is not very much good news for UK universities in the vote to LEAVE we are where we are and universities need to

  • Evaluate the likely impact on various income and student streams, partnerships and so forth
  • Start to devise plans to mitigate the potential threats and take advantage of new opportunities. 

Research Funding

It is reported that the EU invests €730 million a year on research and development in the UK – much of which is allocated to UK universities. Horizon 2020 funding does not expire until 2020 so it is assumed that the UK will continue its funding of the programme and UK universities will continue to have access to this resource for another 4 years. Leave campaigners also promised to plug any funding gap thereafter but the relationship between UK universities and their EU research partners would become less certain unless the UK was allowed to remain a part of the overarching research schemes.

However, the leave campaigners made a clear "promise" and the electorate including those that voted to leave will monitor subsequent action in this regard very closely. The difficulty is that those making the claim may not actually be in, or leading, the government, so may not have the authority to implement. There is credible academic research showing that the UK higher education sector is potentially “over exposed” to partnerships within Europe, a picture encouraged by the lure of funding for collaborative projects. The UK is underplaying its hand in partnering world class HEIs in Asia and North America. Just as in trade between the EU and the UK where the evidence clearly shows that the EU has more to lose from not trading with us or making trading more problematic, so in science research the UK has won a major share of funding it is claimed because of its quality. This suggests that productive partnerships ought to continue to be funded for mutual benefit - we shall see. 

EU Students

European students bring income to UK universities and have been a target for growth given the cap has been lifted in England. Studies have shown that EU students perform well on degree classifications and employability which may be reflected in the proposed TEF if EU student data was to be included. They also add to the internationalization of the campus.

The Knowledge Partnership is currently undertaking research on the EU student market for a syndicate of UK universities. The EU had become an attractive market because of the lifting of the cap in student numbers in England. These EU students currently have lots of options as to where to study in Europe, most of which are much cheaper than the UK, albeit with a loan system. With good education and employment outcomes from studying in the UK maybe they will choose to continue to study here? The key issue is whether they will get foiled by unhelpful visa barriers such as those imposed on international students from wider afield. We can only hope that the new leadership in the UK sees more sense on this issue.

UK universities can set their own fees for EU students if we exit so that will be an area where some research will be needed. It is unlikely the UK voters will support a taxpayer subsidised loan scheme for this market so perhaps the sector will have to create its own package? Perhaps there will be a raft of scholarships to reduce overseas fees for the European market. The question is how much does fees and finance play in the choices of these students?

Erasmus pre dates UK membership of the EU and as there are many more European students coming to the UK for every Brit that travels in the other direction. So, once again the EU and its students would be the losers if this arrangement ends or is curtailed as it has been in Switzerland. We think that exchange programmes may well be important for subsequent PG recruitment, giving many Europeans a first taste of UK higher education; as such it may be an important if subtle recruitment channel. This is something our current research project will be exploring.

I have researched the interests of UK university applicants and students with regard to international interests and yes they are globally concerned and engaged but if one asks about the relative appeal of having study or work experience in Europe or say New Zealand or Asia or North America, Europe fares badly as an option. Clients report this to be the case also. Language proficiency plays a part for sure but perhaps this is also to some degree a reflection of applicants/students having a truly global view and less a narrow European one? The numbers going on study and work experience outside the EU are low but that is often because they have to be self-funded.

When it comes to EU students some subjects are much more exposed than others. TKP has undertaken some quick analysis using the latest HESA data:

At undergraduate level, the subjects that attract the highest numbers of EU students in descending order are as shown below. There were 2,740 EU entrants to courses in business and management (TKP combines these HESA codes as courses that are very similar are located somewhat indiscriminately between the codes), for economics it was 870. The percentages show the proportion of all entrants from the EU. Here politics (and international relations) are the most exposed, but the data shows that business, management and economics are all at risk if Brexit reduces student flows – and most of these courses are in business schools. Computer science will be concerned at the loss of numbers and quality. Politics also because of the internationalisation of the cohort. Psychology is perhaps the subject that is best able to withstand the loss. Design can call on strong domestic demand and it is claimed makes a loss on the £9k fee so the issue there is more complex.

Business studies/Management studies (9% of cohort is from EU)

Politics (13%)

Computer science (8%)

Psychology (5%)

Design (5%)

Economics (9%)

Niche subjects that could be affected very seriously include AI, biotechnology, publicity, linguistics, maritime studies, Russian, genetics, complementary medicine and development studies.

Many sizeable subjects will be impacted only marginally – those relating to medicine and dentistry, agriculture and animal science, building, English, history, teacher training and education, social work, nursing, geology, religious studies and sport related courses.

If we turn to PGT, 11 subjects attracted 500 or more FT EU students in 2014-15 and many are those that are also the most exposed in the UG market. Again we have combined business and management (nearly 2,000 EU students – 11% of the subject total), Politics (just over 1100 or 20%), finance 9% and law by topic 15% – effectively LLMs, both attract more than 1,000 EU students. Others that attract over 500 included marketing, psychology, economics, teacher training, computer science and law by area. This reinforces the picture that business schools, politics, psychology, design and computing departments will feel the impact most at both UG and PGT, with law schools taking a hit in the LLM markets.

Niche subjects that are at risk include aerospace engineering 34% (and the industry itself due to pan European projects), games (33%), Russian (30%), and maritime technology (26%).

Physics and mechanical engineering are important subjects that attract 19-20% of their intake from the EU and thus are exposed too.

EU researchers and academic recruitment

It is estimated that 15% of academics and researchers in the UK are from the EU, more like 1 in 5 in the Russell Group. It is likely that for existing members of staff and those that hold grants there will be no immediate impact but schemes that facilitate staff exchanges may be curtailed, and uncertainty may make some of those in the UK now think more carefully about staying.

Of course leading scholars will be welcomed in the UK; they are exactly the type of workers that the Brexit campaign was highlighting as a form of positive immigration, with much reference to an Australian points system. The bigger question is whether they will want to come to the UK. The Knowledge Partnership recently undertook research on the mobility of international scholars for our W100 group - universities at the head of the world rankings. These individuals are driven by prestige, by the opportunities to develop their research, the sound financial base of the host university, the strength of the research team and other practical matters. There may be a psychological impact from the Brexit vote in the short term but the flow of scholarly talent in the longer term will be driven by whether UK universities have the global research links and the core funding to provide the right opportunities. EU funding loss and possible replacement issues may play some part in this outcome. Downstream if this does become an issue it may well impact on our university world rankings. Research through partnerships can often be more heavily cited, the reputation research that underpins these rankings may show lower exposure for UK research if the scholarly body is less international, and the quality may suffer if we do not attract the best researchers in the first place.

The Collective Intelligence Project – EU Student Markets

For more information on our current collective intelligence project exploring the changing EU market for student recruitment please click here to find out more about joining the research project or email for a proposal.

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