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Brexit: Is Britain Facing A Mass Academic Exodus?

The world class reputation of British research institutions depends on maintaining excellence in particular fields of research.

March 5, 2017

The world class reputation of British research institutions depends on maintaining excellence in particular fields of research.

The UK exiting the Single Market and the European Customs Union will not only mean a return to customs checks, effectively creating a so-called hard border to control migration, it will also greatly affect the UK’s and Europe’s innovation capacity.

Once Prime Minister Theresa May has triggered Article 50, a two-year countdown to Brexit and the post-Brexit treaty will begin. But already today, British scientific institutions are expressing fears that the decision to exit the EU will mean more harm than good to them.

A hard Brexit – a disaster for British universities?

The UK research system has changed significantly since the country became a member of the European Union. It is only in the last ten to twenty years that several UK universities have become the world-leading institutions they represent today.

Especially, the G5 super elite institutions (Oxford and Cambridge, Imperial College, University College and London School of Economics) face the “Manchester United problem.” They are mortally triumphing and have no other option than to play in the “Champions League.”

EU research funding has been an important catalyst for this development. It has generated more than 19,000 jobs across the UK and makes up roughly 14% of all UK income from research grants.

French officials, aware of the importance of elite universities, have made it clear that France wants to build academic bridges besides political difficulties. They offered Oxford to build a new campus in Paris with French legal status and access to EU funding.

Competing for the brightest minds

Another important element of the British success story have been EU students and staff members. More than 15% of teaching and research staff at British universities are EU nationals.

This includes some of the most highly regarded scientists. Especially the mathematics departments are staffed with a considerable number of academics from Eastern Europe who now feel that they are no longer welcome.

The world class reputation of British elite research institutions, too, depends on maintaining excellence in particular fields of research such as nuclear fusion or atomic research and this excellence is, in turn, dependent on the input of students and researchers coming from countries such as Hungary, Poland and Romania.

Accordingly, triggering Article 50 this March could lead to a gold-rush mood at European universities on the continent.

UK institutions expect German universities, ranking second in the European league table, to be poaching UK-based staff soon.

The German Federal Cabinet just adopted its internationalisation strategy. It aims to steer the path to a global community and sets the goal to increase the number of international academics by 20,000 in 2020.

Another EU key player in the game could be the French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron. He has already extended an invitation to those U.S. scientists whose research might be under threat of being opposed by the Trump administration. Macron’s offer could apply to UK researchers and students, too.

Decline in student applications and tuition fees

Reportedly, applications from EU countries have already dropped by 7%, with applicants mentioning anti-immigrant sentiments as one reason. A strong decline in student applications from the EU could cost the UK an estimated £690 million per year.

Wider economic and social consequences

The British university sector currently contributes £73 billion to the economy per year. But its significance for the British society is much wider. Universities also play a central role in the innovative capacity of a country.

In terms of the fourth industrial revolution, the most relevant research outcomes concerning artificial intelligence, machine learning, big data, cyber security and the internet of things are pioneered in university laboratories.

In terms of international security, the most relevant research outcomes are expected to come from basic research which contributes to tackling the root causes of conflict – including a range of social and environmental problems.

May’s wish list for a hard Brexit

The British government, aware of the importance of research and universities, has made it clear that it wants to remain open for business. In her Brexit speech, May thus stressed her intention to protect UK collaborations with European universities.

Negotiation goals

The major challenge will be to find new common ground. At the moment, there is hope in Europe’s research community that the existing level of close ties in the research landscape will affect Brexit negotiations in a positive way.

There are, in fact, few sectors as extensively intertwined as the scientific communities. Some speak of up to 950 years of exchange and collaboration between research institutions in Europe.

Since 1998, when UK universities started charging tuition fees, international students alone have added £7.3 billion to the economy per year.

Need for a new innovative treaty

Thus, one huge difficulty of negotiating the secession agreement and the post-Brexit treaty will be to balance interests between an EU research system mainly financed by taxpayers’ money and a British university system which, unlike that on the continent, is largely run like a private business.

As there is no precedent for a secession agreement, the Brexit negotiations will likely be an open political process, which at once poses challenges, but also opportunities for reshaping the European Research Area in a favorable way.

Some argue that once Prime Minister Theresa May triggers Article 50, the negotiating leverage for the UK will be greatly reduced.

However, in the interest of both Britain and the EU and for the sake of their citizens and societies, negotiating parties must find an effective route to a new innovative treaty covering the university sector.


It is only in the last twenty years several UK universities have become world-leading institutions.

France made it clear it wants to build academic bridges despite political difficulties.

The super elite institutions in UK face the "Manchester United problem.” They have no other option than to play in the “Champions League.”