Universities are working overtime to convince EU students to take up Erasmus+ study placements in British universities and encourage UK scientists to continue collaborating with European research partners to access Horizon 2020 grants from the European Commission amid post-Brexit confusion


So maybe it wasn’t surprising that some university international departments — and even the odd European higher education minister – advised their students to change their Erasmus+ study abroad plans and avoid the United Kingdom while confusion reigned last year over whether the UK and European Union would end up with a “no-deal” Brexit.

But now, three-and-a-half years after the UK referendum voted in favour of leaving the European Union, a Withdrawal Agreement has been accepted by the UK and European Commission.

And despite both sides agreeing to a transition period until 31 December 2020 – during which nothing much changes – misunderstanding is widespread about what it all means for UK-EU research cooperation and student & staff mobility, Anne-May Janssen, Head of European Engagement at Universities UK International (UUKi) told me for a feature article for University World News.

Fact from fiction

To sort fact from fiction, UUKi hosted a webinar in mid-February, which attracted 500 representatives from across the European higher education and research sectors – all eager to find out the latest in terms of Erasmus student exchanges and the rules for UK participation in EU-funded Horizon 2020 joint research projects.

Three key messages emerged:

• The UK remains a full member of Horizon 2020 and the current Erasmus+ programme. Nothing has changed in the status of the UK’s participation and European universities and research institutions are encouraged to keep working together and exchanging students.

• The transition period ensures that UK researchers will receive EU grant funding for the lifetime of individual Horizon 2020 projects, including projects finishing after the transition period ends in 2020. The same applies to Erasmus+ projects and mobility that runs past December 2020.

• UK participation in future programmes will be determined by the negotiations between the UK and the EU and those discussions cannot start until the European Union finalises the budgets for its next seven-year Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) and says how much it expects the UK to pay to be associated with Horizon Europe (which takes over from Horizon 2020) and the next Erasmus+ programme, which runs until 2027.

Frances Wood, regional director for the UK Government Science and Innovation Network covering Europe, told the webinar: “There has been a lot of confusion in the media and among some research partners both in the UK and the EU, but it is time to move on from what would what would have happened to research cooperation and student mobility if the UK had left the EU without any deal.

“The withdrawal agreement has been agreed and we are not looking at such a scenario. The transition period lasts until 31 December 2020 and UK researchers and businesses can continue to bid for and lead projects in Horizon 2020.”

But she urged everyone not to get too focused on the 31 December end of the transition period, as successful projects with UK participation will receive EU funding for the lifetime of individual projects.

Spanish university nerves

The confusion and speculation over what has been agreed and what happens next has created plenty of media attention, including Spanish newspaper El Pais reporting last year that the “uncertainty is making many universities and students nervous”.

They quoted a student from Santiago de Compostela University, who had a spot to study at Leicester, saying: “The International Relations Office of my university called me and recommended I choose another destination because they couldn’t guarantee that I would receive a scholarship if I go to the United Kingdom.”

The student was due to receive a €2,100 study abroad grant and El Pais said: “The university, located in Spain’s northwestern Galicia region, has asked 40 Erasmus students to consider universities in Poland, the Netherlands and Norway, to give up their scholarship or to wait and see what happens, albeit in the knowledge that they may be left without financial aid.”

Norwegian students were also warned against starting foreign exchange or other study programmes in the UK last year by Iselin Nybø, the country’s government minister in charge of higher education.

And just a few weeks ago the UK’s Guardian newspaper ran a story headlined ‘Too much risk’: why Erasmus students are shunning Brexit Britain, which began by saying: “With no UK funding guarantees, English language learners are heading to Ireland – while their British counterparts are left in limbo”

Their story focused on a student from Cadiz in Spain who said her university had asked her to change her Erasmus+ exchange from a British university “because, like many EU universities, it feared being left to pay high student fees if Britain were shut out of the scheme, post Brexit.”

The student ended up at studying at the University of Galway in Ireland instead, where The Guardian said she struggled at first with the Irish accent.

Erasmus+ future confusion

The UK hosted nearly 32,000 Erasmus+ EU students in 2017/18, according to the European Commission’s latest Erasmus+ Annual Report 2018, making it the third popular destination for study abroad placement after Spain and Germany. Around 17,500 UK students took up study places in EU countries through the scheme.

Concern about Britain’s commitment to Erasmus+ increased after the UK’s Conservative Government rejected a Liberal Democrat amendment to the Withdrawal Agreement in early January this year.

Anne-May Janssen UUK Head of European Engagement

Anne-May Janssen said there was considerable confusion about what the amendment meant, explaining that it tried to compel the UK government “to seek to negotiate continuing membership” to the next Erasmus+ programme” when it starts in 2021. It was not related to current programme, which finishes at the end of 2020.

“Although it would have been a really nice signal to send to the sector and our European partners, nothing has really changed,” Janssen insisted.

“In my opinion the UK government have been as positive as they can,” said Janssen, pointing to UK government statements that they want access to the next programme and value international student exchanges.

“But nothing can be agreed yet, as the budget and fine details of the next programme still need finalising. I know it is scary for the UK because we have never negotiated association, but there is a route to do it and other countries have done it in the past,” she stressed.

Tuition fees for EU students

The number of first year full-time students enrolling at UK universities from EU countries has held-up well so far, going up from 139,150 to 143,035, according to HESA statistics for 2018/19 enrolments compared with 2017/18.

Perhaps this is not so surprising, as the clock is ticking about when EU students might be charged the same higher fees as non-EU international students to study in the UK.

The British government has pledged that EU nationals who start their courses in the UK in the 2020/21 academic year will be eligible for ‘home fee’ status and financial support for the duration of whole course.

But what happens in the 2021/22 student recruitment cycle is unclear. “We at UUK have asked the government to keep the same fee status for 2021/22, but you have to also flip it around and ask what EU individual member states will charge UK students,” said Janssen

Fast-track for researchers

The webinar also emphasised that freedom of movement continues to apply between the EU and UK for the duration of the transition period and that various settlement schemes will then apply for those who move to work in the UK.

While the UK is introducing a new points-based immigration system from 2021, similar to that used by Australia, the government has also announced a Global Talent Visa – a new fast-track system for researchers, scientists, mathematicians.

Frances Wood said among the interesting new fast-track routes was “endorsements” for individuals who have accepted a job of professor, associate professor, reader, senior group leader or equivalent at any UK higher education institution or eligible research institute and for those awarded a fellowship from an approved list of 120 different awards and grants.

“The scheme is also open to teams and not just individual researchers and is not restricted to certain sectors or topics and you don’t need a minimum salary to be eligible which is really important for young career researchers.”

It also gives dependants full access to the UK labour. “So it is not thinking of researchers as individuals, but thinking of the peers and family around them,” said Wood.

She claimed: “It is an important message to show that the UK is open and that we welcome researchers from around the world,”

  • More information about the Global Talent Visa, which became open to applications from 20 February 2020, can be found here

Also see:

Brexit briefing from the European University Association – What now for universities?

The Withdrawal Agreement and the transition period – YouTube webinar with UUKi, the UK’s FCO Science and Innovation Network and UKRO

  • This article has been slightly abridged and adapted from a feature, which first appeared in University World News under the headline Confusion and uncertainty saps EU-UK collaboration on 22 February 2020.