What does leaving the EU mean for Higher Education?

Published: 5th Jul 2016

This briefing is largely based on the briefing by the House of Commons Library ‘EU referendum: impact of an EU exit in key UK policy areas’. The opinions and judgements it contains are theirs. We expect to review and add to these articles periodically as events develop.

Support to EU students living in the UK and access to European research funding are arguably the most significant areas in Higher Education affected by the UK’s EU membership.

Support for EU students

Due to the EU’s rules on the free movement of citizens between EU countries, the UK has been required to provide students from other EU countries with the same access to education as UK students. This means that universities currently have to offer the same tuition fees to EU students as they do UK citizens and offer EU students the same loans to help pay them. British students qualify for the same rights in the rest of the EU.

In 2013/14 there were 125,300 EU students at UK universities 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.

If Britain joins the European Economic Area (EEA), EU students will still have full access to UK universities. They will continue paying the same tuition fees as British students and qualify for government-funded university loans.  Similarly, British students will enjoy the same rights as they do currently in the EU and EEA member states.

If Britain does not join the EEA, the government won’t have to provide student loans or maintenance funding for EU students, which would save the government money. But if tuition fees for EU students rise, it could significantly impact the number of EU students studying in the UK and universities’ income from tuition fees.

But the House of Commons Library says that the UK would probably lose access to EU research funding and student mobility schemes.


EU research funding

UK universities will probably lose access to EU research funding when we leave the EU. The Russell Group—the association of 24 top universities—says its universities receive £400 million per year in research funds from the EU—amounting to over 10% of their overall research income.

As part of the EU’s current Horizon 2020 programme, it is set to provide €80 billion for research across the EU between 2014 to 2020. UK universities are expected to receive £2 billion in the first two years of that programme, but they will not be eligible for future funding when Britain leaves the EU and consequently loses its membership of the ERA.

EU student mobility programmes

Erasmus+ offers opportunities for UK participants to study, work, volunteer, teach and train in Europe. It is open to open to education, training, youth and sports organisations.

Erasmus was set to allocate almost €1 billion to the UK and involve 250,000 participants over the next seven years.

If Britain leaves the EU but joins the EEA, its students will retain access to Erasmus. If it does not join the EEA, then it will likely lose access to the mobility scheme.

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