A month to Brexit: how are campuses placed to weather the storm?

Latest data on income, staff and research funding show the key challenges facing UK higher education in the coming years

December 31, 2019
Source: Alamy

The installation of a majority Conservative government in Westminster means that the UK’s departure from the European Union has suddenly moved from being a possible – although highly probable – eventuality to something that is now certain to happen in just a matter of weeks.

Although previous guarantees on higher education, and the transition period that comes with leaving with a deal, will mean that the Brexit shock to universities is not imminent, the election result does mean the sector can start to plan, knowing that change is now definitely on the horizon.

Changes include students from the EU facing a highly likely hike in fees at some point and losing access to student loans, a complete upheaval in research funding from the continent and the end to free movement for staff between the UK and EU.

So against what backdrop are these momentous changes about to take place? Here we look at the data around four key areas involving UK higher education and research in Europe.

Income streams
Universities in the UK receive money from sources connected with the EU in two main ways: fees charged to students and research income. Any university that currently relies heavily on either of these two strands – or more potently both in combination – may be more nervous about how negotiations on the UK’s future relationship with the EU play out.

An analysis of the latest financial data for UK higher education shows that about a dozen institutions got 10 per cent of all their income from EU student fees and research funding in 2017-18 and almost half the sector relies on EU sources for at least 5 per cent.

For about 20 universities, money from the EU’s funding programmes represents more than a third of all their direct research income. Most of these are institutions that receive relatively low research grant income overall, but there are notable exceptions: 44 per cent of Bangor University’s £21 million in research money came from EU sources last year, for instance.

In terms of fees, a number of institutions have high levels of income from EU students, including the University of Hull (18 per cent of fee income from EU students), Middlesex University (14 per cent) and the London School of Economics (13 per cent).


Staff numbers
The large number of EU citizens working in UK universities – in 2017-18 the proportion was about 18 per cent of all staff – has made this one of the big issues for the sector in the wake of the Brexit vote.

Data since the referendum suggest that there has yet to be any major effect on staffing numbers, but a time lag on the statistics and the fact that Brexit had not actually happened yet make any future effects uncertain. Previously unseen figures unearthed by Times Higher Education in October did suggest, however, that an increasing number of EU staff are leaving the UK for work abroad. And if the future immigration system combines with research funding issues to create a major disincentive for EU staff to work in UK universities, certain subject areas may be uniquely vulnerable. For example, data show that in the humanities and biological, mathematical and physical sciences, about 23 per cent of academics are from non-UK EU countries, particularly Germany and Italy.

The counterpoint to this is that it is conceivable that government immigration policy could make it easier for academics from non-EU countries to come to the UK, with staff from the US and China already making up a substantial share of scholars in UK universities.


Research collaboration 
An area that will be keenly watched over the coming years to see if Brexit alters the dynamic will be international research collaboration.

Currently, Germany, France and Italy are three of the UK’s five most important partners when it comes to the volume of paper co-authorship. Also, the citation impact of articles featuring collaboration between the UK and each of these countries is higher than for its other two major partners, the US and China.

The shift in the UK’s research funding relationship with the EU is bound to affect this in some way, although it could be several years before any resulting patterns are perceivable. However, one other notable point about the current collaboration data is that the UK already has many more collaborations with China than other major EU research nations.

For instance, there were more than 55,000 papers co-authored between the UK and China between 2014 and 2018, 11 per cent of all the UK’s collaborative output. The equivalent figures for Germany’s collaborations with China were 33,000 and 8 per cent and for France’s 22,000 and 7 per cent. The US too is already a more important collaborating nation for the UK than for Germany/France, something that could conceivably strengthen in the future.


European Research Council funding
One of the major losses to the UK in the event that Brexit leads to a complete severing of research funding ties with the EU would, by common consent among universities, be access to grants from the European Research Council. Its focus on research excellence has seen the UK become the biggest beneficiary from its funds during the Horizon 2020 framework programme, totalling some €1.8 billion (£1.5 billion).

If the UK chooses not to associate with the EU’s next research funding programme, Horizon Europe, contingency plans to set up some kind of similar scheme to the ERC could kick into gear. But it is difficult to see how UK universities will be able to draw on the same kind of funds as they have had from the ERC in recent years.

Alternatively, if the UK does associate to Horizon Europe, it is notable from the list of nations benefiting from the ERC in recent years that non-EU members (see Switzerland and Israel) can still gain substantial funds.


simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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