27th Jun 2016

The Brexit: What it means for students

News and media coverage of the Brexit has been dominated by the big issues: the future political landscape, economic implications and healthcare concerns. It will take time before the implications on other facets of life come to light, and third-level education is no different. What we do know is that there will be changes. The UK is the most popular destination for Irish graduates to emigrate to, with one in twelve Irish graduates pursuing work opportunities in the UK.


The Irish Times ran a story last Friday highlighting the fact that Irish students studying the UK, and UK students studying in Ireland will be in the non-EU fees category going forward. What exactly this means remains to be seen. Fianna Fail’s education spokesperson Thomas Byrne said that while students had no immediate reason to be fearful about their university courses or their “EU student” status for at least a year, there was uncertainty beyond this point. However, going forward, “The result of the Brexit vote and the proposed move by Britain to leave the EU could see Irish students having to pay very costly non-EU fees to study in Britain and Northern Ireland,” Mr Byrne said. Much now depends on the negotiations around Britain’s exit from the EU.

Trinity College Dublin has also warned that the vote will have “a long-term impact on universities in the Republic of Ireland” and could hinder the long tradition of students moving between the islands as well as important research activity. Trinity Provost Dr Patrick Prendergast said the decision to leave the EU is unlikely to have an immediate impact on students or research in Ireland or Britain. However, he said mechanisms were needed to enable students from the UK to study in Ireland and students from the Republic to continue to study in the UK. “It is equally important for the future of scholarship and research that some mechanism is found to ensure the UK’s decision to leave the EU does not harm research collaboration between universities here and in Britain.”

The Union of Students of Ireland (USI) warned that Brexit will affect these graduates, and students who want to do undergraduates, postgraduates or the erasmus programmes in the UK. “The outcome of the Brexit referendum is incredibly disappointing,” said Kevin Donoghue, USI president. “Not only for the future of Britain, but also for the future of Ireland. More than eight per cent of Irish graduates pursue work opportunities in the UK, and Brexit will affect them, as well as the students who wish to study their undergraduates or postgraduates in the UK, or do the erasmus exchange programme there.

In an Irish Independent article, Mr Donoghue said “At the moment fees are free for Irish students in Scotland and around €9,000 for the UK. That could rise to €10-14,000 for undergrads and in excess of €20,000 for masters students depending on what the UK will decided to charge. Other non-EU countries like Norway and Switzerland have a policy of trying to get as much as they can out of EU students and the UK could adopt similar policies.” He said he’s “not hopeful” that fees will remain their current price.

University World News reported that In university towns such as Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester, support for remaining in the EU was high – 70.3%, 74% and 60.4% respectively in favour of staying.  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.”  Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group of leading universities, 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.”

While the immediate response from universities was to attempt to calm deep seated fears about the rights and status of EU staff, students and researchers in the UK, it is far from clear how this will play out as the referendum result immediately sparked a deep political crisis. David Cameron, who backed remaining in the EU, announced within hours of the result that he would step down as Britain’s prime minister by October. It is unlikely that any negotiations between universities and government ministers, or government ministers with the EU will begin till later in the year.


The main priorities for universities are securing research and other funding from the EU to UK universities, and protecting the status of EU staff currently working here, with some predicting a brain drain from British universities. The UK does disproportionately well in winning EU research funding. Overall, the UK puts in about 12% of the EU budget but wins back more than 15% of research funds, according to official figures. This amounted to €8.8 billion (US$9.7 billion) between 2007 and 2013.

The European University Association in Brussels said it was “very concerned about the insecurity” caused by the referendum, “notably with regard to the participation of British universities in the EU funding programmes as well as the long-term consequences for European cooperation in research and education.

“Regardless of the result of the referendum, British universities are and remain an essential part of the European family of universities, which extends beyond EU borders. This community of knowledge and learning is strong and longstanding, and it will surely overcome this crisis, although the questions and consequences of the British exit are certainly formidable.”

In March, Nature surveyed 666 researchers living in the UK. A full 83 percent of respondents said they’d like to remain in the EU. But more than that, the scientists also predicted that leaving the EU would have horrible consequences for science in the country.

EU students in the UK

All UK universities will be hoping for early certainty on these issues so that they can provide the necessary reassurance. The Principal of the University of Aberdeen has already reassured continuing students that they won’t be out-of-pocket if their fee status changes as a result of the Brexit referendum.

HESA’s statistics for 2014-15 show that studying in the UK’s universities were 46,230 postgraduate students and 78,435 undergraduates originating from the European Union (excluding the UK). These students made up 5.5% of the total student population.

The proportions of EU students in the four nations, and the total (EU students, both UG and PG) numbers, were:

Scotland 8.9% 20,805
England 5.2% 95,620
Northern Ireland 4.8% 2,730
Wales 4.1% 5,425

Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK said the first priority of Universities UK 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. Some 150,000 EU students currently study in the UK, or 5% of the student body, paying the same fees as British students. According to official figures, EU staff are 15% of the UK academic workforce.

Irish Times: Irish students in UK could face hike in fees after Brexit vote

Irish Independent: Irish students studying in the UK fear price hike in fees

University World News: Brexit vote brings uncertainty for British universities

Wonkhe: Over exposed: where are the EU students?

Univeristy of Aberdeen: EU Referendum – message from the Principal

Nature: Scientists say ‘no’ to UK exit from Europe in Nature poll