The impact of Brexit on the student experience

Scotland Europe Initiative
Publication Date
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Knowledge in sound
The impact of Brexit on the student experience

October 27 2023, by Professor Sarah Prescott

One highlight of being a university student has always been the opportunity for international study and the chance to broaden the mind, enrich intercultural exchange, and further essential language skills. Brexit has had a direct impact on this key aspect of the student experience in several ways, from the withdrawal of Erasmus funding to the concurrent decline in student mobility, equal opportunity and recruitment of students from the European Union. The impact of Brexit also adversely affected language education at higher level as well as weakening the internationalisation of our universities.

More broadly, we are in danger of making language degrees and international mobility only the preserve of an elite few who can afford to study abroad, precisely at a time when we need multilingual graduates and intercultural ambassadors more than ever.

From the perspective of language students at the University of Edinburgh, the replacement Turing scheme has created many problems which have directly and adversely affected the student experience, exacerbating the problems created by the Brexit vote. Budget shortfalls for Scottish universities means more students having to self-fund, which in turn restricts access to study abroad and raises urgent issues of equality of opportunity for our students.

The student experience post Brexit: From generous Erasmus to Turing and self-funding

The Scottish Higher Education Institution (HEI) sector benefitted greatly from Erasmus: Scottish HEIs secured 17% of the total funding allocated to UK HEIs through the Erasmus 2020 call (KA103 and KA107). In Scotland, the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow were the UK’s largest recipients of Erasmus KA1 funding through the 2020 call. In contrast, Scottish universities secured 56% less funding via Turing (2023 call) than through Erasmus (2020 call), equivalent to a cut of over £7million.

In addition, European partners have restricted funding for the United Kingdom, as only 20% of their Erasmus funds can be dedicated to non-associated nations. In addition, the Turing Scheme does not provide funding for inward students or funding to support staff mobility. The Turing Scheme also only funds outbound students. Applications for funding are made on an annual basis, and this creates a high degree of uncertainty. The one-year project cycle of the Turing Scheme, combined with a significant funding shortfall, also makes it extremely difficult to promote opportunities to students who rely on funding. Furthermore, prohibitive post-Brexit visa/immigration requirements add to the financial burden of mobile participants (upfront costs) and prevent students from engaging in work placement opportunities. All these factors, both financial and bureaucratic, add to student stress and undermine what should be an incredible and transformative experience.

In the absence of adequate funding, the University of Edinburgh made the decision to guarantee funds for mandatory study and work abroad. However, there was insufficient Turing Scheme funding to support those students in Edinburgh for whom a period of overseas study or work placement was an optional component of their degree programme, and these students are not covered by the University’s underwrite.

In tandem, the EU student population declined from 26.3% in 2012-13 to 8.8% in 2022-23. That decline had begun in real terms (headcount) before the impact of Brexit on fees and takes place in the context of the overall student population increasing by 50% over the same period.

Overall, the University of Edinburgh’s position remains strong in terms of international student recruitment. Nearly 50% of our students are from outside the UK, and we are home to the second largest (after UCL) international student community of any UK university, which was the same position pre-Brexit. 

However, although international intake remains buoyant, the diversity of student origin has reduced post-Brexit. The University has become more reliant on a smaller number of source countries, and the lower number of European entrants at both undergraduate and postgraduate level has contributed to this, primarily due to full international fee rates. The University has an active plan to stimulate diversification across the international student intake: Europe, and France and Germany in particular, is a focus of this work. Initiatives to review our scholarship offer and our portfolio of degree programmes are two further strands of this work that will assist with future recruitment from Europe and help to diversify our substantial international student community.

Nous parlons aún europäisch

The good news is that there has been no decline in the uptake of Modern Languages at Edinburgh after Brexit: undergraduate numbers are stable or have seen slight increases for Spanish and Portuguese, French, German, Italian, Russian, Scandinavian Studies (Norwegian, Swedish, Danish). We also teach minority languages such as Catalan, for example, and will add Basque and Dutch this year. As part of the University of Edinburgh’s overall language provision, the Centre for Open Learning also offers additional languages, including Ukrainian, and the School of History, Classics and Archaeology are planning to introduce Modern Greek.

The success of Modern Languages at the University of Edinburgh, therefore, reinforces the need for a funded and seamless international study and work opportunities. A decline in the transformational international experience of students makes the Scottish and UK economy, society and culture less competitive, leading to a loss of apprenticeships, volunteering, staff exchanges, and an overall decline in international mobility for staff and students. We cannot allow such programmes and such opportunities to be the preserve of the privileged few.

At the time of writing, we await further news on the much-anticipated Scottish Education Exchange Programme, which it is hoped will be broadly similar to the Welsh Government’s Taith programme and include funding for reciprocal mobility, as Erasmus+ did so effectively. In the interim, the Scottish Government have made modest funding available to Scottish universities via a new ‘Test & Learn’ Project to encourage new initiatives which align with their three priority missions, and which have a welcome focus on inclusion and diversity. Keeping the focus on its ‘Mobility for All’ strategy, the University of Edinburgh plans to apply for ‘Test and Learn’ funding as we continue to explore new international learning opportunities for all our students.

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Scotland-Europe Initiative

This Initiative will examine Scotland’s and the UK’s relations with Europe and the effects of Brexit on our daily life by exploring public policy issues such as trade and investment, energy policy, and migration.

Find out more about the Scotland-Europe Initiative

Sarah Prescott is Professor of English Literature and Vice-Principal and Head of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Edinburgh.

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.