Brexit vote didn’t spur quick exodus from UK universities

The number of EU academics at British universities kept climbing in the year of the ‘leave’ vote.

Search for this author in:

Flags of the European Union and the United Kingdom

The number of EU academics working at British universities continued to climb in the year of the Brexit vote.Credit: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg/Getty

The number of European Union nationals working as academics at British universities increased slightly in the year that the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU, according to figures published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency on 18 January.

The data, the first to comprehensively profile the United Kingdom’s academic population in the wake of the June 2016 Brexit vote, suggest that a feared exodus of European researchers had not yet materialized by about six months after the referendum.

The proportion of academics in UK universities who came from other EU countries rose by half a percentage point in the year to 1 December 2016 — from about 17% to 17.5% of the total academic population — according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). The increase continues a decade-long trend (see ‘EU staff undeterred’).

Source: Higher Education Statistics Agency

Muddy waters

British researchers might have made up a larger share of new hires in 2016 than in previous years, according to Stephen Curry, a structural biologist at Imperial College London and a member of the advisory board for the campaign group Science is Vital. Although the ratio of EU to UK academics continued to rise, the change was not quite as marked as in previous years, he says.

Curry says that he would expect any negative effects of Brexit to be more visible in data stretching to the end of 2017. “I know of at least one colleague, an EU national, who has moved to a new job outside the UK precisely because of the changed environment stirred up by Brexit,” he says. “Others have reported their distaste for the anti-immigrant sentiment that was stirred up by some elements of the Leave campaign.”

Naomi Weir, deputy director of the London-based lobby group Campaign for Science and Engineering, says that although it is encouraging to see that there hasn’t been a “cliff-edge drop-off”, the organization was not expecting such a fall.

Data sourced by Nature last year found that the number of researchers applying for EU-funded Marie Curie fellowships in the United Kingdom had dipped slightly since the Brexit vote, but there was no evidence of a sharp decline.

And figures published earlier this month by the Liberal Democrats, a centrist UK political party, found that there had been a 19% rise in the number of non-UK EU academics resigning from British universities in 2016–17 compared to 2014–15. That figure is “alarming”, says Liberal Democrat education spokesperson Layla Moran. But the numbers, obtained through Freedom of Information requests to 105 universities, did not include the number of researchers arriving during the same period.

Waiting game

“I’d be hesitant to draw too much reassurance from [the HESA data],” says James Wilsdon, who studies research policy at the University of Sheffield, UK. Six months is not long enough for the effects of the Brexit vote to become visible in academic-population data, he says, particularly given the relatively long time that it can take for a person to move countries.

More significant, he says, will be the trend that emerges over the next three to five years, once Brexit has actually taken place. “Until then, I suspect the data will reinforce what many of us hear when we talk to our EU colleagues: that they are seriously contemplating leaving the UK system as a result of Brexit, but holding off making a final decision until the outcomes of the Article 50 negotiations are clear,” says Wilsdon.

Free movement of workers between the United Kingdom and other EU countries is set to end in March 2019 as the United Kingdom departs the bloc. But the UK government has pledged to protect the rights of EU citizens arriving in the country until that date, as part of a deal reached with the EU in December.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-00954-1
Nature Briefing

Sign up for the daily Nature Briefing email newsletter

Stay up to date with what matters in science and why, handpicked from Nature and other publications worldwide.

Sign Up