What will Brexit mean for Britain’s world-class universities?

Academics fear a threat to research, funding and overseas recruitment

Like many Britons, John Martin, who holds professorships in advanced medicine at University College London (UCL) and Yale in the United States, was asleep when the referendum result began to emerge during the early hours of 24 June 2016. “My wife had been following the count on her iPhone,” he remembers. “When the Newcastle result was declared, she woke me up with, ‘this looks bad’.”

Martin’s immediate reaction was, he says, one of “powerless disbelief”. As the contours of the catastrophe began to emerge, his reaction hardened. By daybreak, he was consumed by “a combination of anger and sadness”.

He leads UCL medical school. Brexit meant that multimillion-pound European research grants were threatened by sudden death through funding cuts. Martin, shocked at “this self-inflicted wound”, became galvanised.

Almost immediately, he sat down and did something he had never done before: he wrote a letter of protest to the government, declaring that his career as a scientist dedicated to EU collaboration was being sacrificed to “a concept of sovereignty that remains an ill-defined fantasy”, begging the minister to be allowed “to help you in any way that you wish”. Months later, Martin is still angry and dismayed. “Brexit must be the biggest example of self-harm in our history,” he told the Observer last week. On paper, medical research programmes can look abstract, but behind the acronyms and funding jargon there are some highly wrought human stories. To appreciate the pan-European dimension of Martin’s work, consider his “small babies project”.

One of the most distressing diseases of pregnancy, foetal growth restriction, means that one in 300 UK babies per annum will experience poor blood-flow in the womb from mother to child. Afflicted babies, born too small, will suffer walking and learning difficulties, blindness and, in some cases, death.

Big Pharma has never dared to tackle foetal growth restriction, but Martin decided to dedicate his UCL team to a problem whose risks had hitherto discouraged research. With a budget of €6m (£5.2m), Martin assembled a pan-European team, directed from UCL, but also based in Sweden (Lund), Germany (Hamburg), Finland (Kuopio), and Spain (Barcelona).

In 2017, after a three-year programme involving difficult clinical trials with sheep, rabbits and guinea pigs, Martin will be ready to treat the first woman with foetal growth restriction at University College Hospital, next door to UCL.

Tony Blair waits to deliver a speech on university top-up fees in January 2004
Then prime minister Tony Blair waits to deliver a speech on university top-up fees in January 2004. Photograph: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

Martin, perforce, now sees this as the bittersweet climax to a career dedicated to European biomedical collaboration. “Unless we are part of the European process, sharing ideas, such an innovative project will never happen again. If my research gets limited to the UK, it will be a case of small thinking equals small objectives equals small outcomes,” he says.

To emphasise his dismay at the immediate consequences of the referendum further, Martin cites the case of another research project, based on a 3,000-patient trial of stem cells in the treatment of heart attack.

“With European Commission funding, 28 EU hospitals were involved, under UK leadership.” After Brexit, Martin says, speaking warmly of his own team of researchers from France, Italy and Germany, “we won’t be able to execute such a large-scale project in the UK, or have such brilliant teams of doctors”.

Martin is especially worried about the free movement of labour: “The creativity of science is enhanced by the free movement of EU scientists into the UK,” he says. “I now have the choice of the scientists from the whole EU. I can pick the best-quality candidates in Europe ... for my research.” The prospect of Brexit, hard or soft, has put a torch to a sensitive biomedical ecosystem. Such threats to world-class university programmes also apply, on a smaller scale, to the arts and humanities, and are not confined to prestige laboratories in London. On a country campus such as Warwick, Professor Nicholas Dale, who also runs Sarissa, a pioneering biomedical company renowned for life-saving in vitro diagnostics, heads a research team that includes a German, a Lithuanian, an Indian, a Chilean, a French-Romanian and an Italian. Dale is also worried about the future.

“If hard Brexit goes ahead,” he told the Observer, “I can see serious issues in the supply of critical components from our suppliers in Spain. It’s not impossible to overcome, but small tech companies really can do without tariff barriers and their inevitable bureaucracy.” For a very small company like Sarissa, the single market is highly advantageous. It only has to conform to one pan-European set of regulatory requirements. Dale says: “Brexit just adds more uncertainty – and, of course, the UK won’t have a say in any future European regulation of this market.”

These case studies from London and Warwick illustrate the human and intellectual cost of Brexit at the university level. There are two aspects to this: first, the “brain drain”; secondly, the potential restrictions on overseas research students.

The brain drain is an old story. Many senior figures in British universities – including Martin and Dale – remember the hostility of the Thatcher government during the 1980s towards Britain’s top universities and the flight of scientific talent abroad. Dale had bad memories of the 1980s. There were just “no jobs in British universities for research scientists”, he says.

He notes, with ironic satisfaction, that last month’s four British Nobel prize winners – Duncan Haldane, David Thouless, Michael Kosterlitz and Sir Fraser Stoddart – are all based in the US, having moved there a generation ago. These research triumphs play an important role in the UK’s global status as a society with a vigorous, knowledge-based economy, a key to growth. For instance, half of all US economic expansion since the second world war can be attributed to advances in science and technology. Many British research scientists now worry the prime minister’s “Brexit means Brexit” will mean that British science will become starved of budgets and staff, with serious economic consequences.

It is not as if the science departments of British universities are awash with funding. The UK has the lowest per capita spending on research of any G7 country. Britain’s science punches above its weight in the international university league tables, and does so mainly thanks to EU grants.

Just as disturbing, human capital is also under threat. University vice-chancellors from LSE, King’s College London and Bristol have already expressed fears about the recruitment of international research students. They cite home secretary Amber Rudd’s speech at the last Conservative party conference as heralding a crackdown on the recruitment of overseas students.

University Of Sussex
The University Of Sussex, which was created in response to the 1963 Robbins report. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

Colin Riordan, vice-chancellor of Cardiff university, told the Guardian that to stop universities recruiting overseas students would be “an absolutely devastating blow [which] would hugely reduce diversity”, with serious financial consequences for already strained university budgets. Dominic Shellard, the vice-chancellor of De Montfort university, notes that the De Montfort graduate and Turner prize winner David Shrigley had recently unveiled a new sculpture – a giant thumbs up – on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth. Under the new government, says Shellard, the universities will soon be “showing a very different finger”.

Although it is the threat to highly geared UK science projects that have inspired the sharpest protest, among philosophers, economists and historians, there has been a similar surge of dismay at the socio-cultural threat implicit in the vote.

The unintended consequence of Brexit, within Britain’s ivory towers across all disciplines, not just science, has been the dynamic effect of the referendum on the country’s top minds. During the long summer vacation, outrage and despair appears to have matured into a kind of pragmatic rearguard action on behalf of civilised English values.

Few can be more pragmatic, even dispassionate, than Cambridge historian Professor Brendan Simms, author of Britain’s Europe: A Thousand Years of Conflict and Cooperation. “It is time,” declares Simms, who voted Remain, “for those who wanted the UK to remain in the EU to accept reality.” He understands “reality” to mean a renewal of English sovereignty and traditions, and argues that Britain did not decide to leave “in a fit of pique”. Our departure, properly understood, reflects a deeper pattern of British history. Simms believes that we would have left the EU eventually, “if the EU had not collapsed first”.

Simms is an Irish citizen of mixed Irish and German family. His approach to the Brexit question combines Celtic mischief with Teutonic rigour. He sees Britain as “a European state that does not fit in” to the continent and as a society that would do well to be “more British”. Across the Channel, he argues, Europe was always the problem (how to contain Germany and repel Russia) and the EU was the solution. In Britain, historically, Europe was the problem (the Spanish Armada; Napoleonic France; Nazi Germany), to which the United Kingdom was the answer. In the history of threats to England, Simms compares Brexit to the Reformation, the Napoleonic wars, and 1940.

For Simms, now that Brexit has happened, it is time for the UK to embrace its destiny and join Washington in saving Europe by trying to persuade the EU to “achieve a full political union on the model of Anglo-America”. Cometh the hour, cometh the “model”: paradoxically, the election of Donald Trump may even revitalise the “special relationship” and invigorate Britain’s assertion of its independence.

From the broadest historical perspective, Simms says that “the big geopolitical question” is this: will the UK and the EU, former partners hopeful of separating amicably, “eventually become enemies”? His pragmatic concern, which is widely expressed within the university community, is that Theresa May’s government is simply not up to the task of executing any kind of Brexit, hard or soft.

Students throw mortarboards at De Montfort University.
In 2013-14, 46.6% of young people in England entered higher education. Photograph: Mark Makela/Getty Images

The weakness of the British government’s negotiations, argues Simms, is to underestimate the UK’s historical record as “a highly competent actor” in European affairs whose “political fundamentals are strong”. Simms speaks for a body of academics, distinct from biomedical professors like Martin and Dale, for whom politics surpasses economics. For “politics” read “sovereignty”, whose robust good health Simms sees as decisive in our struggle with Europe. Assessing the Brexit odds, he is unwilling “to place a long-term bet on victory by the EU over the UK”.

Which brings the Brexit debate back to the competence of May and her Brexiters. Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, vice-chancellor of Cambridge university and a stalwart Remainer, is also passionately against “doom, gloom and despair”. He wants Cambridge, as an internationally renowned campus, to take as much advantage of Brexit as possible. To facilitate this, he told the Observer, the government must provide some basic and much-needed clarity, and complains that, “we still don’t know what Brexit means”.

Borysiewicz wants clarity on “the national status of university staff” (code for flexible immigration), a recognition of the collaborative ideal implicit in EU projects, and a government guarantee of vital university budgets. He says he is “sceptical that Brexit can be delivered” by the team under David Davis and Liam Fox, but gives their efforts the benefit of the doubt. “We must work constructively together and our case should be well made, trusting that we shall be fairly treated.”

In this, Borysiewicz echoes a recent report by an independent group of scholars commissioned by the Political Studies Association and led by Professor Anand Menon of King's College London, which warns that the triggering of article 50 is less the beginning of the end, more the end of the beginning. “Brexit,” says Menon, “has the potential to test the UK’s constitutional settlement, legal framework, political process and bureaucratic capacities to their limits.”

Menon’s team has focused on the government’s great repeal bill, but such forensic zeal is not typical of Britain’s ivory towers. Many other herbivorous academics see the role of British universities in a more philosophical light.

Borysiewicz puts it this way: “Our place in a global community through soft power is our saviour. We must promote Britain as a tolerant, welcoming country.” He speaks personally. His Polish parents came here during the second world war and flourished here. “We must continue to believe in the UK,” he says. “Ours is an open society and we should be proud of that. That’s where Cambridge can play a vital role.”

On a scale of 10, how does the vice-chancellor score the prime minister? “I’m a harsh judge,” he says, “but I’d give her six.”

By this metric, Warwick’s Dale does not give the government more than two out of 10. “They don’t know what they are doing,” he says. “Theresa May seems out of her depth.” But he adds that he is “not surprised”. On the big vote against public smoking, “probably one of the most significant advances in public health for a century”, May abstained, which Dale thinks “showed incredibly poor judgment”.

Post-Brexit, the universities have found an unexpected role: to champion a creed of intellectual freedom and multicultural diversity. Dale reports that he has been to several new citizenship ceremonies. “Lovely occasions. The speakers always stress tolerance and freedom, and how great it is to be British. It’s rather moving. But now, we are moving so far away from that, I find myself wondering if people will want to come here any more.”

Simms, who also celebrates those values, draws a less pessimistic conclusion. He believes that Brexit has had an “intellectually clarifying effect” and sees England as a radical country, facing “its biggest challenge since the Reformation”. He does not repine. “I have confidence in the UK… People should have more faith in our institutions.” He wants the government to recognise that “England is a hugely important society, with a great international future”.


1088 The University of Bologna – Europe’s first university – was founded.

1096 The year of the first documented teaching at the University of Oxford. The first colleges – University College, Balliol, and Merton – were established between 1249 and 1264. Oxford is believed to be the oldest university in the English-speaking world.

1878 The University of London was the first UK university to admit women.

1880 Victoria University (now Manchester University) was founded. It was the first in a wave of new redbrick universities which admitted men from all religions and backgrounds. The other redbricks were Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Bristol universities.

1963 The Robbins Report called for a huge expansion of university places. Seventeen unis were created, including York, Warwick and Sussex. The numbers studying full-time in UK higher education grew from 216,000 in 1962-63 to 457,000 in 1970-71.

Brighton Polytechnic students at their graduation ceremony
Brighton Polytechnic students at their graduation ceremony in 1992, the year the institution received university status. Photograph: Alamy

1992 Polytechnics were given university status. By 2000-01, there were 1.3 million students in full-time higher education, with the vast majority (1.21 million) studying at universities.

1994 The Russell Group was formed by 17 British research-intensive universities. The group, named after the Russell Square hotel in which the universities met, now includes 24 institutions.

1997 The Dearing Report recommended students should contribute towards the cost of their degree. Tuition fees of £1,000 were introduced in September 1998.

1999 Tony Blair announced New Labour’s goal to get 50% of young adults progressing to higher education by 2010.

2004 Blair faced a huge backbench rebellion during a vote to raise fees to £3,000, winning by only five votes.

2011 The number of young people in England entering university came close to the 50% mark, a key aim of New Labour policymakers. In 2011-12, there were 2.55 million students in UK higher education. Around 5% were from countries within the EU (other than the UK) and 12% were from countries outside the EU. At post-graduate level, more than half (57%) of all full-time students were from outside the UK.

2012 Tuition fees were tripled to £9,000. In 2013-14, 46.6% of young people in England entered higher education.

2014 A government audit of university research found 75% of projects were “world leading” or “internationally excellent”. EU sources provided 14.2% (£836m) of all UK research grants and contracts in 2014-15.

Source: Higher Education Statistics Agency, Social Market Foundation


Robert McCrum

The GuardianTramp

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