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The higher education sector and the EU

The higher education (HE) sector is a major UK industry – it contributes £73 billion to the UK economy, including £11 billion of export earnings. [1] 

International and EU students play a significant role in the HE sector contributing in economic and cultural terms. Latest figures showed that EU and non-EU students were estimated to have contributed £9.7 billion to the UK economy in 2011 through tuition fees and living expenditure.[2]

Under EU law the UK Government must provide tuition fee loans to EU students on the same basis as UK home students – some EU students also qualify for maintenance support. In 2013/14 there were 125,300 EU students at UK universities[3] and in that year £224 million was paid in fee loans to EU students on full-time courses in England – 3.7% of the total student loan bill.[4]

UK students benefit from the UK’s EU membership by way of access to Erasmus+ a mobility scheme that provides students with opportunities to study in the EU.

UK HEIs also benefit significantly from EU science and research funding and the free movement of academics across the EU. The UK is predicted to receive about £2 billion from the Horizon 2020 programme in the first two years of operation and it is estimated that the 24 Russell Group universities receive about £400 million a year in EU research funds – some 11% of their research income. [5] In addition British universities employ more than 30,000 scientists from EU countries [6]and in some UK universities, up to 50 per cent of postdoctoral positions are held by EU citizens.[7]

The HE sectors concerns

Universities are extremely anxious about their situation post Brexit – their concerns focus on two main areas: the impact on people (students and staff) and the impact on research (funding and collaboration).  The Government has made some guarantees around students and funding but the long-term implications of Brexit on the HE sector and on students is currently still unknown as much will depend on what is agreed as part of the UK’s exit negotiations with the EU. 

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the HE sector is already experiencing an impact with regard to collaboration in EU research projects and HE staff mobility – these issues could potentially have a substantial effect on the sector in the future.

This paper gives a brief overview of the issues of concern to the HE sector as a result of the decision to leave the EU and outlines parliamentary debate in this area. .

[1]     HC Deb 14 November 2016 c11

[2]     HC Deb 27 Oct 2016 c 49818

[3]     Higher Education Statistics Agency SFR 210 Higher Education Student Enrolments and Qualifications Obtained at Higher  Education Providers in the United Kingdom 2013/14.

[4]     SN/SG/917 Tuition fee statistics 1 December 2014.

[5]     “UK’s big guns make a stand for research in Europe”, Times Higher Education 23 April 2015

[6]     “Research head urges UK to seize Brexit opportunity”, BBC News, 2 August 2016

[7]     “Confronting Brexit: the perks and pitfalls of plausible moves”, Times Higher Education, 6 October 2016

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