BREXIT: Universities must redouble efforts to seek new students and research funding from further afield, says expert

Out-Law Analysis | 25 Jul 2016 | 1:25 pm | 3 min. read

FOCUS: Looking towards Asia and the US to recruit new students and, potentially, obtain funding for research projects may help UK universities to offset some of the damage that the UK's vote to leave the EU will have on their finances.

This is part of Out-Law's series of news and insights from Pinsent Masons experts on the impact of the UK's EU referendum. Watch our video on the issues facing businesses and sign up to receive our 'What next?' checklist.

Of course, little may change if the UK's future relationship with the EU is broadly similar to EEA membership, and UK universities retain access to EU research funding, staff and student recruitment. However, relying on this is a big gamble and universities must act now to hedge against the risks posed by 'Brexit'.

The current feeling within the higher education sector is that UK universities will have a turbulent time ahead if they are to maintain their leading global position post-Brexit - while the recent governmental reorganisation in which oversight of higher education moves to the Department for Education, while that of science and research remains with the newly-constituted Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, may complicate matters further

UK universities currently receive around £850 million of funding each year through Horizon 2020, the EU's Framework Programme for Research and Innovation. While this funding stream technically remains open as long as the UK remains in the EU, anecdotal evidence suggests that the money is already beginning to dry up – and, as early as 5 July, the BBC reported that European academics were now asking their UK-based partners to withdraw from joint funding applications so as not to jeopardise their bids.

Times Higher Education has reported that a number of UK universities are looking at the feasibility of establishing EU-based subsidiaries, able to retain access to EU funding streams; while University of Cambridge vice-chancellor Sir Leszek Boysiewicz, was on record even before the referendum with his intention for the university to open research parks elsewhere in the EU in the event of a Brexit vote.

But as well as take the necessary steps to maintain as much access to an important source of research funding, academic staff and student recruitment as possible, universities should also be redoubling their efforts to look further afield. The likes of China, Malaysia, India and Singapore, where there is huge demand for UK education, are already important markets for student recruitment and this will become even more important as a result of Brexit; while research staff will be seeking to expand their partnerships further into China and the US, among other countries.

This will require a change in approach: according to Universities UK, research partnerships between academics in the UK and those in other EU countries have been growing at a faster rate than those with partners further afield in recent years; while more than 60% of the UK's current international research partners are based in the EU.

And it is heartening, amidst talk of cancelled projects and a 'brain drain' of the EU citizens who currently make up around 14% of UK university academic staff, to read last week's commitments by university leaders from across the EU to continued collaboration with their UK partners once the Brexit process is complete.

Any drop in the number of EU students coming to the UK to study as the result of post-Brexit restrictions on freedom of movement is likely to mean loss of revenue for universities - although this may be offset by universities charging EU students higher fees post-Brexit. Universities are currently required to charge EU students the same as they charge those from the UK, while international students typically pay fees of upwards of £15,000. Universities such as the London School of Economics (LSE) and Imperial College that take in large numbers of EU students will still feel the impact of any changes, while Scottish universities - at which EU students can benefit from free undergraduate education in the same way as their Scottish counterparts - will also feel the pinch.

Against this backdrop, the importance of recruiting international students - particularly from Asia - will increase in order to replace those from the EU. This will almost certainly increase the pressure on the UK government to review the immigration status of these students, who are currently included within official migration figures; and to reintroduce the post-study work visa, to provide these students with additional incentives to study in the UK and allow the national economy to benefit from their expertise once their education is complete.

Martin Priestley is a universities expert at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind