The Eurocadres blog

Brexit and its impact on higher education

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Brexit came as a shock to the higher education world; the prospect of UK universities falling out of the European mechanisms for cooperation was both unexpected and alarming.

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The UK was and is one of the preferred partners for European research cooperation, and it is by far the most popular destination for mobile students in Europe. However, while many challenges remain, there are solutions to most of them.

The place of the UK in the European higher education landscape is indeed impressive. It is the undisputed research leader both in terms of publications and in heading European research groups under the EU’s €80 billion Horizon 2020 programme. It is clear that by removing the strongest player in European research, Europe would lose as a whole. Brexit has raised important questions about how the research links could be kept.

For student mobility, the role of the UK is even more dominant. More than one in four mobile students, around 200,000, go to the UK. With the UK outside the European Union, it is not clear how student mobility will be affected: What will be the status of students in UK immigration policies? Will they get residence permits? Will European students pay the higher fees that non-EU students pay? What will it mean for UK students wanting to go abroad? And what about the UK students that are in the EU?

More than one in four mobile students, around 200,000, go to the UK. With the UK outside the European Union, it is not clear how student mobility will be affected.

The questions are many, but luckily the higher education sector is traditionally open and experienced when it comes to international cooperation. The European programmes are already open to non-EU countries. There are association agreements already functioning with, for example Norway, Switzerland, Israel and Turkey – meaning there are already ways to ensure that the UK could be part of EU research and mobility schemes.

The UK and the EU negotiators agreed already at an early stage that the UK could be part of the present EU programmes until they end in 2020, including Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+. Unless the negotiations break down, cooperation through the EU programmes will be largely business as usual. Once the UK has left the Union, negotiations can begin on how it will be associated to future programmes. This is already scheduled in the planning for the future partnership.

Once the UK has left the Union, negotiations can begin on how it will be associated to future programmes.

The danger to future EU-UK cooperation in this area is, instead, that bigger things may get in the way. If there is no solution on how to keep the Irish border open, there will be no deal before March 2019. As nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, this will also apply to UK participation in the current programmes. The challenge of UK participation in EU projects will add to all the other areas affected by a chaotic Brexit, from data sharing to student residence permits.

The challenge of UK participation in EU projects will add to all the other areas affected by a chaotic Brexit.

In sum, if there is a deal, Brexit looks manageable for the university sector. If the UK exits without a deal, universities will have their share of all the problems this will create.

Thomas Jorgensen EUA IMG_5160

The author

Thomas Jorgensen

 Senior Policy Coordinator and Brexit expert at the European University Association