14 August, 2022


Brexit: Are The UK Universities & The Research Sector The Biggest Casualty?

By W.A Wijewardena

Dr W.A Wijewardena

Dr W.A Wijewardena

British voters choosing for leaving EU

In the recently-held referendum, the British people decided by 52 to 48 that Britain should leave the European Union. In popular jargon, this was a choice in favour of Brexit or Britain’s Exit from EU. However, Brexit was fought on emotional grounds rather than on hard core economics or political realities.

Given the track record of British voters in the past, many had expected that they would go for a rational choice. That rational choice required them to compare the costs and benefits of Brexit before making their choice. The material placed before the voters by campaigners for remaining in EU too had urged them to make their choice considering the enormous economic costs of Brexit.

However, it was only the voters of Scotland, Northern Ireland and a section of London who had acceded to that request. The rest of the voters had chosen Brexit and, accordingly, Britain will leave EU formally within a timeframe of two years.

Bank of England’s undented reputation reverses market decline

When the results were pouring in and it was clear that Brexit would be carried, the Sterling Pound came under pressure in international markets. It immediately fell from $ 1.45 per Sterling Pound to $ 1.33 or by about 10%. Analysts who had relied on a prediction of George Soros, International Fund Management Guru, forewarned that it would fall to as low as $ 1.20, the parity with Euro. But it did not happen.

That was because, when the markets were open on Friday morning, Bank of England Governor, Mark Carney, appeared before the press and gave an assurance. He told the markets throughout the globe that the Bank, along with the U.K. Treasury, would take necessary action to restore normalcy. Markets believed Governor Carney more than Soros. Why? Governor Carney had an undented reputation as a tough central banker, a reputation which he had earned while he was the Governor of the Bank of Canada.

Besides, the Cameron administration had, through unpopular fiscal measures, tamed the uncontrollable British Budget allowing space for the government to intervene in the economy without building inflationary pressures. Hence, though there are economic costs, the economic fallout is expected to be corrected over the next few years.

UK Universities and research programmes are unintended casualties

But there is an unexpected casualty of Brexit. That is the UK Universities and their scientific foundation which had heavily relied on EU funding and collaborative projects with EU research centres. Knowing that Brexit would dent this otherwise smooth operation, UK Universities had actively campaigned for remaining in EU canvassing specifically with young people. In a report published on 8 April, the UK Universities, a body representing all the universities in the country since 1919, had highlighted that EU students contribute about £ 3.7 billion annually to the UK economy creating some 34,000 jobs in all corners of the country.

According to the report, there are about 125,000 EU students in UK universities representing about 5% of UK university student population. The top five senders of students to UK universities have been Germany, France, Ireland, Italy and Greece in that order.

Campaign by UK academics for remaining in EU

This is something which UK universities in particular and the U.K. Voters in general cannot ignore. It prompted Dame Julia Goodfellow, President of Universities UK and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Kent, to openly declare as follows: “EU students make an enormous contribution to British university life and local communities. The figures show clearly that EU students spend money and create jobs in all regions and corners of the UK. EU students also make a very important academic and cultural contribution to university life, creating an international, outward-looking culture on campuses which, in turn, benefits UK students. Leaving the EU and putting up barriers to work and study makes it more likely that European students and researchers will choose to go elsewhere, strengthening our competitors and weakening the UK’s universities.”

EU students cross-fertilise intelligent minds

One important secret of promoting academic excellence is the assembly of bright students in an academic institution and promotion of competition among them. It helps to cross-fertilise the minds and allow students coming from different parts of the globe to benefit from each other. The U.K and the US universities had resorted to this strategy for centuries and the result had been the elevation of their universities to the global top class universities.

Thus, UK’s Universities and Science State Minster Jo Johnson who is having two postgraduate degrees from continental Europe is reported to have emphasised as follows: “Our success as a knowledge economy hinges on our ability to collaborate with the best minds from across Europe and the world. It would be reckless to cut ourselves off from the rich sources of EU funding, the access to valuable shared research facilities and the close institutional ties that provide so many opportunities to British students and academics. UK students benefit from their ability to study across the EU, while EU students generate billions for the UK economy, support thousands of jobs and enrich university life. I share the clear view of my predecessors and the majority of university leaders that our world-class universities and our scientific prowess will be much better off inside the EU.”

Plea from the VC of Sheffield Hallam University to young people

When it was apparent that young people had not got themselves into the voting register, Vice Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, Chris Husbands, appealed to young people to get registered in time and vote at the referendum.

In a blog, he said: “One striking thing about the 2016 referendum debate is that, so far, it has by and large been an argument amongst middle aged and elderly people. And that’s wrong. The decision we make on 23 June will shape everyone’s lives in one way or another, but it will shape the lives of young people far more decisively than the lives of (and imagine the pain I feel in writing the next few words) old men like me. All the evidence we have is that older people are more likely to vote than younger people. And that also has to be wrong. The referendum vote on June 23rd will – it has to – be a moment of national decision making. It’s more important than a general election: we get the opportunity to vote on our government every five years, but this is a decision which will shape decades. And it will be decisive”.

Observing that 50.1% for Brexit would mean a completely different trajectory from a vote of 50.1% for remaining in EU, he appealed to students through his blog site: “And so this blog is really addressed to students, wherever they may be. It’s really important that you vote. This is about your future – about the sort of country and world you are going to live in.”

Nottingham University VC upholds the need for having EU students

Just on the eve of the referendum on 22 June 2016, Vice Chancellor of the University of Nottingham, Professor David Greenway, made one final appeal to British voters to consider what it would mean to them as well as to universities if Britain voted for Brexit.

According to him, though the single currency in Euro area had not worked well, the single market and the single Euro area education had delivered beneficial results to all the EU members. He has said that the UK universities have immensely benefited from the ERASMUS programmes – European Region Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students – a programme introduced by EU to facilitate the exchange of students among European countries.

Vice Chancellor Greenway has specially commented as follows: “We live in a highly globalised world, and that brings many benefits, including to higher education. Greater movement of ideas and people across borders is to be welcomed. Exposing students to new cultures, new ways of doing things and new ways of thinking not only enriches personal development; it enhances employability. The number of students studying outside their country of domicile has more than doubled to four million in about a generation, for several reasons. One is mobility schemes that just make it easier. Erasmus programmes have done that, and Nottingham has almost 500 students benefitting from them – the most of any UK institution. Of course, were we outside the EU, we might find other ways of giving these students a mobility opportunity, but it would require new vehicles and new funding sources. We want our young people to have these experiences to expand their cultural horizons, but also because it supports them in the labour market. Specifically, students who did an Erasmus placement have been shown to be 50% less likely to experience long-term unemployment.”

Research side is also a loser

This is only one side of the benefits which the UK had been getting from being a member of EU. The more important side had been the research grants received by UK universities from EU and the collaboration which they have with European research centres to undertake new research. The European science and technology foundation has, therefore, been a solidly interconnected one. Any denial of access of the U.K. Universities to that interconnected network will result in the UK lagging behind its competitors, especially those in the US and other European countries.

A research report completed by Viewforth Consulting for the UK Universities and released before the referendum had quantified the research support given to UK universities by EU.

According to this report, of the total research expenditure incurred by UK universities during 2014/15 amounting to £ 5.9 billion, £ 836 million or 14% had come from EU sources. These direct funding had generated secondary benefits in the form of using research outputs in industry and commerce in the UK. The report had estimated that in addition to 19,000 jobs which the EU research grants had created, it has contributed to UK economy to the tune of £ 1.8 billion per annum. Now that EU support for research is no more there, the British government or domestic sources have to fill the gap in a competitive manner. This is a very big challenge which the new administration in UK has to tackle under Brexit.

Statement by UK Universities

After the outcome of the referendum was known, the UK Universities had issued a statement taking stock of the current situation and urging the Government to take suitable action.

While respecting the choice of the UK voters and taking note of the two year window available for Britain to exit EU, the statement emphasised the following: “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.”

Accordingly, UK Universities are obviously down, but not out. They plan to make a comeback by building research partnerships with EU centres through non formal channels.

Northumbria University’s VC Andrew Wathey’s forward looking risk management strategy

Meanwhile the Vice Chancellor of the Newcastle’s Northumbria University, Professor Andrew Wathey made a firm reassurance in a statement issued after Britain decision to Brexit. He said: “The decision to leave the EU will pose significant challenges for universities, and of course for the whole of the UK. However, I want to reassure you that, barring any unilateral action by Government, nothing will change immediately as a result of the referendum. There will be at least a two-year window for exiting the EU, allowing universities time to reflect and organisations like Universities UK to negotiate on behalf of the sector.”

He had also revealed that during the run up to the referendum, he had with his senior staff, strategised the course of action which his university would take in the event of a victory for Brexit. Says Wathey: “In the run up to this referendum I have been working with my senior leadership team to develop a strategy in response to just such a scenario and we are in a strong position to meet this new challenge. The decision has been made and we now need to work with that decision to ensure the University is in the best possible position. Over the coming weeks we will keep you informed of developments as they become clearer both for us and for the UK as a whole.”

What Vice Chancellor Wathey had done is what central bankers call ‘forward looking risk management’. It is an eye opener for every business, government and individual how they should map out their strategies when they are faced with uncertain choices.

*W.A. Wijewardena, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at waw1949@gmail.com

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Latest comments

  • 4

    This is quite misinformed. All of the EU funding into the UK universities is paid back from money the UK has already paid into the EU. In addition, EU students enjoy special priviledges (i.e. – reduced fees, first in line for UK jobs) despite their often appalling English skills (a necessity for serious research in the UK). In the meantime, commonwealth students need to pay more money, have a much harder time getting visas, and as of late have been selecting the US instead of the UK simply due to the lack of welcome from the get go (http://www.wsj.com/articles/international-students-stream-into-u-s-colleges-1427248801)

    Even the second tier US universities, having far superior funding models such as endowments and strong alumni funding, are far ahead in the world of research than all but the four largest universities in the UK. The EU has actually been a hindrance to the UK university system, not a boon.

    [Edited out]

    • 3

      Vice Chancellor you are absolutely right. Mr. Wijewardena has got it all wrong this time around.

    • 5

      Vice Chancellor

      Mr Wijewardana is quite correct & it is you who is misinformed. The Brexit camp always highlighted the fact that UK paid £350m a week to the EU but was cagey about confirming that most of it came back as subsidies & grants. In fact, at the TV debate hosted by Jeremy Paxman in the final days before the vote, a University Professor claimed that for every £ the UK paid to the EU, received £1.40 back in the form of grants for research & education. UK Universities now charge the full fees from all students & there is no cap on the fees charged but British & European students are entitled to a student loan, or even an outright grant, from their Governments to fund their education depending on their individual circumstances. The fact is, University education is no longer free & all have to pay the same fee. Everybody, including European students who come to UK to study are aware that they need a good understanding of English but British Universities tend to prefer non European students because it’s more lucrative. In fact, from personal experience, I know that a non UK /European student has a better chance of getting admission to a University of choice than a UK student with same qualification.

      The Brexit vote was all about immigration. The average man on the street was led to believe by UKIP, the racist party that challenged Cameron to hold a referendum, that UK cannot sustain the flow of migrants from poor EU countries, such as Poland & Romania, & as a result, the British people lose out on Govt. benefits. UKIP stirred up nationalistic feelings of the poorly educated masses, just like Donald Trump, Hitler & our own SWRD & MR, who capitalized nationalism for their own political gain. In the case of Boris Johnson, it was an opportunity to take over the Tory leadership from Cameron & a few other politicians also supported a Brexit in the hope of advancing their own political careers in a possible Brexit coalition Govt. A few misguided non European ethnic minority believed that closing the door on EU migrants will allow other immigrants to come in to UK on a points system as used in Australia. Nobody who voted for Brexit was prepared to consider long term economic risks of leaving the EU, the average man on the street was either too dumb to understand or didn’t care even if the cost of living went up as long as immigrants were kept out.

      • 3

        Excellent analysis and conclusions. Fully agreed.

      • 2


        I understand students from outside the EU are charged almost double the fees of EU students.

        Could you clarify.

        Aren’t you worried about rising far-right activities and hate crime throughout Europe?

        Is it true that the referendum was won on blatant lies, just like our island?

        When are you leaving?

        A friend of mine told me he is relocating to Scotland. I suggested he stayed put for there is a slim chance of London becoming a separate state. He blamed the recent immigrants from Sri Lanka who voted in draws for the exit. They genuinely believed that they too were Brits and wanted to reclaim UK from EU, just like the Sinhalese and Tamils.

    • 2

      I listened myself to Wijewardhana lately, I have the feeling his thoughts are lying more on subjective lines rather than objective ones. Just becasue he had been the dpty governer cant know it better as I see it. The very same men had been like blind and deaf even if CB had no functioning legal dpt within CB until Mr AM was appointed to the position.

  • 3

    What this writer has written complements and agrees what several other academics had written, e.g., the article by Prof Dharmawardana from Canada that appeared in the Colombo telegraph. But Jingoism will always prevail over reason. International collaboration without loosing one’s sovereignty, but allowing for compromise is what is needed in this day and age where the world is fully interconnected.

  • 0

    An empire is in progressive decline from Commonwealth Union to European Union and now it is disintegrating United Kingdom.

    The English will be frogs in the well in England overshadowed by the massive EU in the South.

    There no answer to the immigration issue even after leaving. Any bilateral agreement with the EU to smooth relationship will encompass more immigrants moving about. Norway’s agreement takes more EU citizens than UK.

    The old grand dads and nannies made the decision for the future generation whilst, Scotland, Northern Ireland, London, Oxford and Cambridge has said no to Brexit.

    • 1

      It was such a fortunate occurence for the EU to come along and save England from 1000 years of barely getting by

  • 0

    The very British Monarch oriented system has been rapidly declining in present context state of ruin, collapse and decline have been objectively surface of exit-EU.

    That is natural phenomenal of capitalist structure of British, that we can see at present context of even imaging at all accurately what rich forces lie hidden in people by UK monopolies capitalist.
    The very majority people feel that transition from old colonial UK to New independent UK by ,if it proceeds as sharply as it has appear in UK since year 2000.

    In fact looking at things at all historically, that UK hegemonic and the politics-economic-social of colonialism , that presupposed of course a gigantic destruction of what has become obsolete and moribund in social life in the people of UK!

    And it is clear that the search for New cannot to provide those definite alternatives for UK people ,almost fixed and final forms which previously took sharp in course of colonial and imperial domination and lasted for centuries by UK monopoly class.

    The endless discussion of so-called elites of British Intelligentsia, endless holding meetings about which monopoly capitalist of UK and their allies ,the press talks so much so acrimoniously is a necessary transition of the people still completely unprepared for new social constructions of Old democracy to New one.

    We demand new a transition from historical somnolence to new socialist historical creativeness. There is absolutely nothing terrible work out of isolation from Imperial York ,that need in rousing millions of people for AN INDEPENDENT POLITICAL LIFE OF NEW DEMOCRACY AND SOCILAISM.


    The UK life of politics and an economic life line and social life become extremely critical even desperate situation the country in as regards ensuring at least mere possibility of existence for the MAJORITY THE POPULATION.

    THE PEOPLE of UK ARE BRITISH THESE ECONOMIC CONDITIONS SO DESPARATED URGENTLY DEMAND THE ACHIEVEMENT OF DEFINITE PRATICAL RESULTS. Generally speaking this changes cannot be brought about by any decree of Queen power of monarchy or by any democratic prescription.

    The time has come when the social achievement of precisely this changes is the pivot of democratic revolutionary of power of State.

    Now new conditions for it have matured in UK ,now it is impossible to POSTPONE it or wait for it any longer.

  • 1

    The racist mindless morons were not at all concerned with universities. They were like our Mahavamsa morons. They did not understand the enormity of what they were doing. As in the case of the Mahavamsa morons who plunged the country into years of discord. the English country morons have ensured that England remains little England for a long time. Education is not a priority for these fellows.

    • 1

      Well said MS. Certain ignorant and self centred morons still think the rest of the world owes them a living. Think little; result is zero in this digital age! In my view UK was and still is better off by far being in the EU.

      Soon Scotland would leave the UK. It is very sad to see UK being broken up. It is a matter of years and not generations and possibly followed by Wales and may be Northern Island.
      It is the young people who are the biggest losers in the Brexit Win.
      Combination of Donald T with his Mexican Border wall in the US and Boris J with his pie in the sky airport proposal in the UK ,is a nightmare scenario. It is also a fallacy and sheer ignorance to think that the former colonies such as ours,are just waiting for them do trade and deals. The world has moved on since the colonial days. Those were the days when “You can have any car as long as it is Austin or Morris” and later British Leyland. Now variety is the spice of life.
      That said it was the British who abolished slave trade and slavery
      gave us , parliamentary democracy ( for what it is worth in developing countries such has ours!!) many more wonderful things.

      On a more positive note : Scots had a major contribution to the world in many fields.
      It was a Scot, Andrew Carnegie; in my mind the greatest philanthropist the world has ever seen. The steel king gave over 4000 free libraries to the world, The international Court of Justice in Hague was his brainchild , the world renown Carnegie Hall in New York, Carnegie Mellon University , Carnegie endowments among many other things. He was my childhood hero and still he is my all time greats.

      Ratnam Nadarajah

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