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On June 23, 2016, the British electorate voted in a referendum to leave the European Union by a majority of 52% in favour to 48% against. This was a wholly unexpected result and the Prime Minister, David Cameron, resigned the following day. On March 29, 2017, Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty was triggered by a letter to the EU signed by the new Prime Minister, Theresa May, setting up a 2-year window to negotiate terms.

Our recent study charts the views and the actions of  the Boards of Governors and the Vice-chancellors of British universities who are responsible for maintaining and assuring financial stability; enabling and supporting the aims of the university to teach, research and innovate; maintaining the university estate in good order; and, in particular, developing and overseeing the strategic plan for the university, which is delivered by the vice-chancellor/principal working in tandem with the board/council.

Interviews were held from April 24, 2017 to June 7 2017, a window ending before a general election in which the Conservative party lost its majority and found itself only able to govern with the support of a small group from the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland.  Interviewees, who were members of boards and vice-chancellors, were drawn from throughout the UK and from all types of universities.

The pre-referendum position of UK Universities had been very strongly in favour of remaining in Europe, and Universities UK’s (UUK) “Universities for Europe” campaign underlined the UK’s success in attracting the best and brightest academics from the European Union. In 2014, over 50% of European Research Council Consolidator Grants were won by academics in UK universities, originally  from the EU.

Responses Expressed

The emotional responses by interviewees were wide-ranging: “We had been duped by other interests; We should have been given the costings to stay in; “Lying bastards;” “The prime minister chose to introduce the referendum, but failed to inform the public of the context;” “A protest vote,” and, “My son has already googled how to become an Irish citizen.”

The intellectual responses noted the anti-intellectual stance of many Brexiteers: “Evidence-based policy is regarded as an insult in certain circles” and, “it marked a low point in public policy.” Concern was expressed about the position of the individual universities: “What guarantees can we get?” and “Can we manage to secure a good settlement for the university?” or “What about all our collaborative work?”

The Response of Governing Bodies

Few universities had given any consideration to the effect of a “leave vote” on their institution, but some had. In one case, the council had been given an extensive briefing by an independent governor before the vote. Within 24 hours of the vote, that institution, had sent out a letter to all EU students and staff, promising to protect them. Hotline guidance was set up. Institutional management was expected to be proactive and engaged with extensive engagement of the vice-chancellor with his peers, the UUK and with the UK government. Pressure was applied to make sure the education sector was prioritised in Brexit negotiations.

Another case exemplifies the kind of actions provoked by the vote. The executive reworked the exposure of the university: all financial plans were re-examined with robust scenarios; the implications for research were revisited along with implications for international students. The councils were provided with training in risk analysis that was undertaken immediately for scenario planning with details on possible outcomes for the next 5 years. A huge recruitment campaign was undertaken to add expertise in banking, investment, and experience in managing a huge, multimillion-pound organisation; external advisors provided direction on marketing strategy.

The Challenges Now

Nothing is certain and little progress has been made in the negotiations. The bitter struggle within the Conservative party continues. Universities run on a high fixed cost base; borrowing commitments are rising and a number of universities have Euro loans from the European Investment Bank that may have to be repaid; the sector faces a loss of almost one billion annually in EU research funding. After the 2019 intake there will be a loss of EU students with EU students comprising 25% of the enrolment at some universities and likely loss of top EU research staff at the end of the Horizon 2020 programme.  With no guarantee of funding UK universities can no longer attract top researchers and a January 2017 survey indicated that 75% of the EU researchers currently in the UK are likely to leave. Research partnerships are decreasing and although the continuing weakness of sterling is attracting more international students, this cannot re-balance the numbers.

Riding Out the Future

University leaders are prepared to think imaginatively. Vice chancellors are actively pursuing new opportunities. Councils are diversifying funding sources, increasing fundraising, and making the case for continued joint activities to European bodies. The #WeAreInternational Campaign led by Sheffield University includes over 100 universities committed to the UK remaining a welcoming home for global scholarship.  Partnerships, particularly research partnerships, are a growth area, as is transnational education, franchising out courses, the establishment of campuses in the EU, and the exploration of accessing EU funding from outside the EU.  New marketing strategies are being developed with careful targeting; training programmes are being offered to get research staff to be more entrepreneurial; the number of articulation agreements with local colleges is being expanded.  Some institutions will downsize to protect their financial viability.

Concerns remain. “Our research exposure is a worry,” “Our biggest concern is that bigger universities will take our students,” “Can particular institutions remain financially viable when 25% income will have to be replaced ?” and “Mergers may have to be explored by those whose financial stability is at risk”.

As one interviewee put it, “We will be poorer and not financially secure.  It will be hard work.  The EU has helped us to be part of something bigger than just the UK”.


Heather Eggins is a visiting professor at Staffordshire University, UK, and a Fellow Commoner at Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge. She works on a wide range of issues in higher education policy and enjoys editing books on such diverse topics as leadership, governance, access and equity, and the roles of women in academia.




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