Interesting times

These are tumultuous times, to say the least, for students starting or returning to university in the UK, say VWV

The sense of impending sector change created by the publication of the HE White Paper in May was compounded over the summer by uncertainty arising from the outcome of the European referendum in June and a new prime minister and cabinet in July. This has left the HE sector trying to make sense of an unchartered political landscape with students and academics alike left wondering what will happen next.

Legislative change

The last significant piece of primary legislation to impact on the sector was the Higher Education Act 2004, which increased tuition fees, facilitated student loans and introduced both the Office of the Independent Adjudicator and the Director for Fair Access. It also relaxed the requirements for degree-awarding powers and gaining university title, leading to the creation of 48 new universities. Prior to that was the Higher and Further Education Act 1992, progenitor of HEFCE and the post-1992 universities.

The Higher Education and Research bill, currently making its way through parliament, is considered by some to be long overdue. The government’s White Paper – Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice – was published on 16 May 2016, two days before the Queen’s Speech and three days before the Bill received its first reading in parliament. The date of the second reading, when MPs have the chance to debate the Bill’s content, was announced at very short notice to be 19 July during the final week before MPs’ summer break, prompting the swift organisation of an emergency protest in Parliament Square.

Even before the outcome of the referendum was known there were calls for further pre-legislative scrutiny from those unconvinced about the proposals (which include a new Office for Students to replace HEFCE and OFFA and the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework). With Brexit firmly on the horizon, there have been calls from many for new legislation to be delayed until the effects on the UK HE sector of leaving the EU are better understood. 

It is perhaps not surprising that concerns about the UK’s international position and outlook are acting as a distraction from the established preoccupation with domestic opportunity, choice and competition. 

In reality, however, the two are linked and have the same ultimate objective of preserving and enhancing the HE sector on the world stage with all of its associated economic, cultural and scientific benefits. 


No one yet knows exactly how the Brexit vote will impact on UK universities in the long term. Much depends on when Article 50 is triggered and the UK actually leaves the EU, a process rather than an event and one that is likely to be measured in months or even years. Another important issue is how acrimonious the eventual departure becomes. The more cordial the negotiations, the more likely that EU/UK collaboration in HE will find new forms not dissimilar to the existing ones.

The UK HE sector is not Eurosceptic. The referendum campaign confirmed general support for ‘remain’ at all levels, which can be attributed to the inherently international nature of academic activity and its reticence towards anything that inhibits the transmission of funding, the flow of people and the sustenance of cross-border networks.


The UK traditionally receives a disproportionately high level of EU funding for its size. Between 2007–13, more than €7bn was awarded to UK institutions under the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), around 15.5% of the total amount allocated (second only to Germany, which received 16.1%). During 2014–15 under the Horizon 2020 programme, UK universities received more than £836m in grants and contracts, representing over 14% of all UK research income. 

Concern about losing this income has already led the Commissioner for Research, Carlos Moedas, to reassure UK researchers rattled by the initial reaction of some European collaborators to Brexit that their entitlement to make Horizon 2020 applications remains unchanged: “the referendum, as such, doesn’t change anything regarding their eligibility for funding under Horizon 2020, the world’s biggest research and innovation funding programme.”


So, whilst Britain remains a member of the EU there will be no change in terms of the right of UK universities to access EU funding or take part in pan-European research projects. There will also be no immediate changes to UK policies for university staff coming to the UK from the EU or remaining here, which is good news for those fearing for their own position or the impact of sudden staff departures on research projects, reputation and students. 

However, in the longer term, change is inevitable and perceptions matter. Almost immediately after the referendum outcome was known, there were anecdotal reports of a loss of confidence by some foreign academics in UK-led research (and UK researchers) and an impression that the UK is becoming a less secure and therefore less attractive place to work. This is important not only because of the risk of losing or failing to recruit staff from EU countries, but because of the possibility that high-quality academics from further afield who would previously have moved to the UK now choose to go elsewhere. The message from Jo Johnston was not to panic: “It is business as usual for Horizon 2020. I would be concerned about any discrimination against UK participants and am in close touch with Commissioner Moedas on these issues.’

No one yet knows exactly how the Brexit vote will impact on UK universities in the long term. Much depends on when Article 50 is triggered and the UK actually leaves the EU


If it is accepted that perceptions about the reliability of funding streams will impact on the recruitment of academics, so too is it likely to inhibit the recruitment of students. The UK has four universities in the world top 100 and is the second most popular destination for international students with a 10% share of a global market predicted to grow to around 8 million students by 2025. There is a lot to lose. Maintaining this position will require investment, not only to create capacity within the HE system, but also to ensure that the reasons people want to study in the UK do not diminish to the advantage of our competitors. Where the money for this might come from is not yet clear.

Nearly half a million international students are enrolled at UK universities, with around 125,000 of them coming from the EU. The referendum result itself may have no effect on the immigration status of those students who are either already here or about to start a course, but consequent change seems inevitable from 2017–18 onwards. The precise position will of course be contingent on the outcome of negotiations and whether or not EU students will be able to study in the UK on the same or similar terms as before.

Fee levels will also stay the same for the foreseeable future and EU students enrolled at universities in England and Wales remain eligible to receive funding from the Student Loans Company. For those EU students enrolled in Scotland, entitlement to free tuition will continue until at least the end of the current academic year. The clear concern however is that fee levels for EU students will then rise dramatically, leading to a decline in undergraduate numbers. Some commentators have played down the potential financial consequences of diminishing levels of EU student enrolment, pointing out that fears of a numbers collapse when non-EU students stopped being subsidised by UK tax payers in the 1980s never came to pass. Instead, institutions became better at recruiting international students who paid considerably more to study here. It should also be remembered that significant numbers of international students come to the UK from countries outside the EU, notably China, India, Nigeria, the US and Malaysia. 

Even so, complacency would be unwise and it may be that a new Higher Education and Research Act that, amongst other things, places a greater focus on teaching standards and student choice through data transparency, will help to raise standards to the benefit of all. On the other hand, these are only some of the changes proposed and perhaps there is now too much uncertainty for the sector to cope with the impact of Brexit and a new legislative regime at the same time.  

In the absence of sector reform it will be for institutions to decide how best to respond. Lobbying for the continuation of free movement and access to the single market whilst prioritising the maintenance of international relationships is likely. Whether or not there will also be a move towards other ways of promoting confidence, such as the implementation of a standardised and consolidated student contract, remains to be seen.

For more information, please contact Tabitha Cave on 0117 314 5381 or [email protected], or Kris Robbetts on 0117 314 5427 or [email protected]

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