First signs of a decline in European Union academics

The proportion of academics at British universities who are from other European Union countries continued to rise after the 2016 Brexit vote and is now 17% across all institutions and 24% in the top Russell Group universities. But growth in EU academics is tailing off and there has been a drop in EU academics under 34 years.

These are among the findings of a policy brief published on 30 May and authored by Dr Giulio Marini, a research associate at the Centre for Global Higher Education, based at University College London’s Institute of Education.

“Brexit has still to happen. At present, nobody knows what specific arrangements will be in place from 2019,” writes Marini.

“The terms of the agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom in EU research and student mobility schemes will dramatically affect the mid- and long-term capability of UK higher education to attract and retain academics from the EU.

“The attractiveness of the system as a whole for students might also have an indirect impact on maintaining the number of non-UK EU nationals at UK universities,” Marini concludes.

The figures

In the policy brief titled “Are EU university academics leaving the UK because of Brexit?”, Marini points out that Britain’s higher education sector is rightly highly concerned about the impact of Brexit on the employment of EU nationals at universities.

“There was a remarkable growth of non-UK EU nationals in the system before the referendum, especially between 2011 and 2015,” Marini found, drawing on data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency over a period of 13 years.

“In the first year after the referendum (2016-17), the overall percentage still increased, but by less than the previous three years.” Growth also seemed to tail off among Russell Group universities, where the proportion of non-UK EU nationals is much higher.

“Analysing by age bands is one of the few ways to predict possible future trends, assuming that a person who is already established in a career is less likely to change their country of residence compared to someone at the beginning of their career,” Marini writes.

“The percentage of academic staff aged 34 and under in the first academic year since the referendum decreased (from 26.99% to 26.61%), indicating a possible reduction of non-UK EU nationals in the future.

“This figure suggests that although the absolute number of non-UK EU nationals is still growing, the UK is losing some of its attractiveness among younger academics.”

UK higher education, Marini argues, “is not benefitting from the uncertainty triggered by Brexit. A deal to enable academic staff mobility and to confirm the status of EU nationals who were residents at the date of the referendum is essential and urgent if the country’s higher education sector is to continue to thrive”.

The importance of EU academics

On 20 April, the Centre for Global Higher Education or CGHE published another policy brief looking at the potential impact of Brexit on higher education. This briefing by CGHE senior research associate Dr Ludovic Highman, titled “University Staff Demographics: The fabric of UK universities at risk from Brexit”, outlines the proportion and distribution of EU academics.

Highman found that EU citizens working at UK universities are particularly concentrated among academic staff. On average, 17.4% (35,920) of academics are from EU countries while they comprise only 6.4% (13,610) of non-academic staff.

“Many non-UK EU academics are employed in fields where the domestic pool of candidates is insufficient. This includes subject areas crucial to the UK’s industrial strategy, such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” he reports.

Economics, modern languages, mathematics, physics and chemical engineering top the ranking of disciplines with the highest proportions of non-UK EU staff, according to British Academy figures, with a whopping 36.4%, 34.9%, 28.5%, 27.7% and 26.3% respectively.

“Non-UK EU academic staff numbers are particularly high at the London-based and Scottish Russell Group universities, Manchester and Oxbridge,” writes Highman.

Universities with the greatest research power and with the best track records of securing EU research grants attract the highest numbers of EU academic staff: Oxford, University College London, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Manchester, Imperial College London and King’s College London.

“The non-UK EU academic staff ratios are so high in these universities (roughly over a quarter, except for Manchester) that they cannot be incidental to the quality and quantity of these universities’ research outputs,” he points out.

“Glasgow, LSE [London School of Economics and Political Science] and Queen Mary follow suit, confirming that London and Scotland are destinations of choice for non-UK EU staff, a pattern already observed with non-UK EU students.”

Highman cites Northern Ireland as an interesting case because of the large proportion of Irish nationals working in its two universities – around one in three academics are from the EU – “a staggering figure that is somehow exceeded by LSE (39%) and matched by Imperial (32%)”.

There is a political correlation in the figures: generally, areas that voted ‘Remain’ in the Brexit referendum have the highest proportions of EU academics, “highlighting the generally positively perceived beneficial impact of large non-UK EU populations in these areas”.

The UK benefits significantly from the three million EU citizens living there. However, Highman stresses, in the higher education sector – which provides Britain’s fifth largest export – the contribution of non-UK Europeans is “exceptionally high”.

Indeed, he argues: “The quality and ultimately the reputation of UK universities depends on the easy and flexible movement of people between EU countries.”

* The briefings draw on the Centre for Global Higher Education’s research project, Brexit, Trade, Migration and Higher Education, which is part of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative. Dr Giulio Marini – Email: g.marini@ucl.ac.uk, Dr Ludovic Highman – Email: l.highman@ucl.ac.uk.