Number of EU research students in Britain drops from pre-referendum high

Downward trend in postgraduate enrolment stokes fears of a brain drain in the country's pipeline of promising young scientists.

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University of Kent students and pro Europe young voters

Many students and scientists have been speaking out against Brexit. Credit: Sophia Evans/eyevine

The number of postgraduate researchers at UK universities who come from other European Union countries has fallen since the Brexit referendum in June 2016.

This is according to the latest data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, released on 17 January.

If the trend persists, and there is preliminary evidence from the Russell Group — a body that represents 24 of the United Kingdom’s leading research universities — that it will, this would mark a reversal of years of growth, from around 12,700 postgraduate research students in 2008–2009 to more than 15,000 in 2015–2016 (see ‘Blame it on Brexit?’).


EU arrivals account for about one in five such students at around a dozen UK universities, including the University of Cambridge, Imperial College London and the University of Oxford in England, and the universities of Edinburgh, Heriot Watt, and St Andrews in Scotland. Some 70% of all EU research postgraduate students come to the United Kingdom from just six countries: Italy, Germany, Greece, Spain, France and Ireland.

Although UK-wide data for the academic year 2018–2019 will not be available until this time next year, the Russell Group says that among its members there has been a 9% drop in the number of enrolments of postgraduate researchers from other EU countries, in September-December 2018 compared with the same time period in 2017.

Knock-on effects

The decrease is a concern and could have implications for UK research, says Hollie Chandler, a senior policy expert at the Russell Group. “These students are an important part of the research pipeline, both for academia and industry,” she says, adding that many talented research students normally stay on to do postdoctoral or other work in the country.

There is a risk that the fall in numbers will be even more pronounced in the next academic year, she adds, given that the continuing Brexit uncertainty is now higher than ever.

On 15 January, the UK parliament rejected the terms of a Brexit withdrawal agreement negotiated between the UK government and the EU. This means that unless a fix is found fast, the United Kingdom could leave the EU on 29 March without an agreement, potentially halting the country’s extensive participation in EU collaborative research programmes.

Clarity needed

“EU postgraduate students starting courses in 2019 to 20 are facing uncertainty over their migration rights, fee status and the UK research-funding environment in the event of no deal,” says Chandler. “The UK Government needs to provide clarity at the earliest opportunity to reassure these prospective students.”

Meanwhile, she says, UK universities are doing everything they can to send the message to EU research students that they are welcome and valued.

“Postgraduate research students are an essential part of the UK’s research and innovation pipeline,” says Vivienne Stern, director of Universities UK International, a body that represents UK universities globally. “It is essential that we continue to attract students from the EU and across the world to maintain the international outlook which defines our universities.”

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00240-8

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