Brexit vote brings uncertainty for British universities

A momentous vote in the United Kingdom’s EU referendum in favour of leaving the European Union – popularly known as Brexit – has been greeted with consternation in British universities with many concerned about what it will mean for research funding, staff and students from the EU and the general standing of UK research in the world.

Uncertainty and incomprehension among university staff, researchers and students greeted the referendum outcome – 52% voting to leave and 48% to stay – a margin of more than a million votes. There was a stark generational divide with three quarters of 18-25 year olds voting for 'remain' – students and the more highly educated were more in favour of the EU.

In university towns such as Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester, support for remaining in the EU was high – 70.3%, 74% and 60.4% respectively in favour of staying.

Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK, said: “Leaving the EU will create significant challenges for universities. Although this is not an outcome that we wished or campaigned for, we respect the decision of the UK electorate.

“We should remember that leaving the EU will not happen overnight – there will be a gradual exit process with significant opportunities to seek assurances and influence future policy.”

Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group of leading universities, said: “Leaving the European Union creates significant uncertainty for our leading universities but we will work with the government to minimise any disruption caused by this decision.”


While the immediate response from universities was to attempt to calm deep seated fears about the rights and status of EU staff, students and researchers in the UK, it is far from clear how this will play out as the referendum result immediately sparked a deep political crisis. David Cameron, who backed remaining in the EU, announced within hours of the result that he would step down as Britain’s prime minister by October.

It is unlikely that any negotiations between universities and government ministers, or government ministers with the EU will begin till later in the year.

The main priorities for universities are securing research and other funding from the EU to UK universities, and protecting the status of EU staff currently working here, with some predicting a brain drain from British universities.

Susan Lea, professor of microbiology at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, University of Oxford, said it was a worrying for British science. “Recruitment, collaboration, funding, training – all will be weakened by this decision.” She tweeted.

The UK does disproportionately well in winning EU research funding. Overall, the UK puts in about 12% of the EU budget but wins back more than 15% of research funds, according to official figures.

Sarah Main, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said: “This outcome provides a real challenge for our sector. Science is an area where the relationship between the UK and the EU was particularly beneficial, not least because scientists won billions of pounds of research funding for the UK, above and beyond what we put in.”

This amounted to €8.8 billion (US$9.7 billion) between 2007 and 2013.

“In addition, free movement of people in the EU made it easy for scientists to travel, collaborate and share ideas with the best in Europe and for companies and universities in the UK to easily access top talent from Europe," Main said.

Promises and negotiations

Piatt said: “Throughout the campaign both sides acknowledged the value of EU funding to our universities and we will be seeking assurances from the government that this will be replaced and sustained long term.

"We will be working closely with the government to secure the best deal for universities from the negotiations to come so that we can continue to form productive collaborations across Europe.”

Some promises were made during the referendum campaign that any EU funding lost would be replaced by the government. But it is far from certain this will be honoured, given the current political turmoil unleashed by the referendum, according to one political insider.

Jo Johnson, Britain’s universities and science minister, who has consistently and strongly backed remaining in the EU as being good for universities and research, tweeted the terse response shortly after the result was announced on Friday morning: “Big decision. Let’s make it work.”

Prior to the vote he said: “Britain’s success as a prosperous knowledge economy is closely tied to our membership of the EU.”

Johnson said in a newspaper article just days before the referendum: “We should not pretend that replacing these rich additional European funding streams would be easy.”

Jo Johnson’s brother, Boris Johnson, has led the political campaign to leave the EU.

Staff and students

Goodfellow said the first priority of Universities UK will be to convince the UK government to take steps to ensure that staff and students from EU countries can continue to work and study at British universities in the long term, and to promote the UK as a “welcoming destination” for the brightest and best minds.

“We will also prioritise securing opportunities for our researchers and students to access vital pan-European programmes and build new global networks,” she said.

Some 150,000 EU students currently study in the UK, or 5% of the student body, paying the same fees as British students. According to official figures, EU staff are 15% of the UK academic workforce.

Cameron said on Friday that there would be no immediate change in the circumstances of EU citizens in Britain and British citizens in EU countries. The rights of EU workers currently in the UK will be part of any Brexit negotiation with the EU.

Piatt said: “The UK has not yet left the EU so it is important that our staff and students from other member countries understand that there will be no immediate impact on their status at our universities. However, we will be seeking assurances from the government that staff and students currently working and studying at our universities can continue to do so after the UK negotiates leaving the EU.”

The European University Association in Brussels said it was "very concerned about the insecurity" caused by the referendum, "notably with regard to the participation of British universities in the EU funding programmes as well as the long-term consequences for European cooperation in research and education.

"Regardless of the result of the referendum, British universities are and remain an essential part of the European family of universities, which extends beyond EU borders. This community of knowledge and learning is strong and longstanding, and it will surely overcome this crisis, although the questions and consequences of the British exit are certainly formidable."