Uncertainty clouds UK’s Higher Education following Brexit

Brexit has marked uncertainty over United Kingdom's education system

Britain’s membership of the EU had meant great privileges for young Britons. They enjoyed the freedom to be able to live, study, work and travel anywhere within the 28 countries of the European Union. But now that the referendum has made clear Britain’s vote to leave the EU, will all this change?

Figures from the OECD (The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) last year showed England had the highest tuition fees in the world. Undergraduates pay around £6,000 a year. Many young Britons therefore opted to study at much cheaper European universities, particularly in the Netherlands and Germany.

With Brexit, students will now find it difficult to get visas for study and fees could be expected to be more expensive. Students would have to pay international rates now that they were no longer a part of the union.

As to how Brexit will impact higher education in Britain, is a guessing game so far. There is no saying how the U.K. government will rewrite EU laws that could impact higher education. Universities stress that much uncertainty has been caused and assurances would be required that EU funding to universities would be replaced and kept in place long term.

The advantages of EU funding so far have been :

*The funding of research at British universities to a proportion of around 30%, above the government’s contribution in some cases.
*The funding of innovative training and learning programmes for young people not in employment, education or training
*Contributions to big capital spending projects on buildings and facilities at universities
*Allowing freedom of movement for a large proportion of UK academics and educators
*Funding British students to study abroad through Erasmus

The European Social Fund (ESF) is cited by some campaigners as an example of how the EU had provided better learning opportunities to young people.

University leaders in the U.K. were so concerned about what Brexit could mean for higher education that some 103 of them signed a letter published in the Sunday Times of London earlier this year stating that leaving the EU, ‘would mean cutting ourselves off from the unique support and established networks and would undermine the U.K.’s position as a global leader in science, arts, and innovation’.

Another major concern that was not explicitly cited in their letter: how Brexit will affect their non-U.K. student population.

Currently, there are more than 20,000 students from the EU studying in the UK. Students from member countries have had status as near-equals to U.K. students. They have had the same access to universities in the U.K. as Brits themselves. They applied the same way, paid the same tuition (now some £9,000 per year). They also relied on generous terms in U.K. loan facilities. But all that is set to change.

Michael Arthur, president and provost of University College says that British schools are generally regarded as liberal, cosmopolitan, and freethinking’. He says an exit from the European Union could hurt that reputation, making the U.K. and its universities appear close-minded and isolationist. “I think it’s possible that international students would suddenly find the U.K. less attractive.”

This would prompt EU and international students to seek a diverse and rich education somewhere else. The number of EU students in UK number will dwindle changing the Briton student experience of interacting with young people of different countries and culture.

So if international students don’t attend university in the U.K., where will they go? The education systems in Canada and the U.S are large, providing a range of institutions for international students to choose from based on affordability, qualifications, and their English language skills so these countries could benefit.

Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges Martin Doel said: “Whatever the future holds for Britain once it leaves the EU, colleges and their students must be properly supported. They are, and must continue to be, at the forefront of providing education and training to ensure people are skilled and that companies stay competitive.”

“Colleges are currently planning their budgets for 2016-17 and uncertainty over the future of their funding leaves them unable to plan accurately for the coming year. The Government must make it clear as soon as possible how it will continue to fund education and training for the good of everyone,” he added.

Universities UK, the higher education action group which is ‘the voice of universities’, expressed its disappointment at Brexit considering the group had vigorously campaigned for the union to remain.

Dame 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.

Throughout the transition period our focus will be on securing support that allows our universities to continue to be global in their outlook, internationally networked and an attractive destination for talented people from across Europe. These features are central to ensuring that British universities continue to be the best in the world.

Our first priority 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. They make a powerful contribution to university research and teaching and have a positive impact on the British economy and society. We will also prioritise securing opportunities for our researchers and students to access vital pan-European programmes and build new global networks.”

Dr Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Russell Group, 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. 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.”

University of Cambridge Vice Chancellor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, tells Fortune he is concerned about how Brexit could depress the flow of students between the U.K. and other EU nations, but he still expects Cambridge to ‘be a global player’.

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