Commentary by Louis VIS
During the UK’s EU referendum campaign, many argued that a Brexit vote would put the country’s universities at risk. Last month, the University of Oxford became the first UK University to top a global league table. So what can explain Oxford’s success? The key to this is that Brexit has not yet happened. Indeed, whilst voters may have decided to withdraw from the European Union, the British government is yet to start the official exit process via Article 50. Until the article is triggered, the UK will remain a fully-fledged member of the bloc.
However, it is understood that the British government hopes to start negotiating the country’s exit from the EU by the end of March 2017. What exactly will Brexit mean for UK universities and what will be the consequences? The UK currently receives the largest share of the EU’s higher education funding. For example, the European Research Council provided the University of Oxford with 12 percent of its research funding. After Brexit, universities across the country will therefore face a sharp decline in public funding. However, some universities will be hit harder than others. The University of Oxford’s total income in 2014/2015 was of £1,429.3m. The University received £522.9m in research grants of which 12 percent came from the EU. Thus whilst a British exit from the EU will mean a £62m loss in revenue for the university, it is highly likely that it will remain a competitive international institution capable of attracting some of the most influential academics in the world. Looking at the financial situation of other UK institutions, there is little doubt that Russell Group universities – a group representing some of the best universities in the country – will overcome and survive Brexit due to their prestige and diversified sources of income.
Smaller and new universities, which are much more dependent on external EU funding, are much more likely to suffer from the consequences of Brexit. To make matters worse, the British government has allowed tuition fees to rise by an extra £250 a year. Whilst initially this may mean that smaller and new universities in the UK may be able to compensate for this loss of funding by charging higher fees to students, it is highly likely that this policy will end up having a perverse effect. Indeed, students paying around £9,250 a year to attend University will want to maximise their investment by attending the country’s leading institutions. Choosing to spend your money in Oxford or other leading institutions would most probably provide higher returns.
Ultimately, Brexit will result in a loss of funding for universities across the country. However, it seems that because the country’s best universities are much better equipped to cushion the blow, the consequences of Brexit will only serve to increase the country’s inequality gap.