Brexit will 'adversely affect' UK universities' rankings in global league tables

University of Cambridge
by Hayley Pearce | 5 Mar 2019

UK may lose access to EU funding and research partnerships after no-deal Brexit

Compilers of global university league tables have warned that the UK’s performance in them could be negatively impacted when we leave the EU.

Ben Sowter, director of research at QS World University Rankings, said that UK universities’ high rankings often depend on access to European funding and research partnerships, which we may not have in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

QS has published its 2019 rankings showing the top-rated universities in each subject. UK universities are in first place in 13 out of 48 subject rankings, up by three compared to 2018. On top of this, the UK comes second, behind the US, for the number of universities ranked highest in their specialist areas.

Specialist subjects

The QS rankings show the performance of more than 1,200 universities internationally, broken down by subject area.

Of the UK’s universities, Oxford has the most top places in individual subjects, such as English literature, geography and archaeology, and Cambridge comes first for anatomy.

The world leader for sports-related subjects is Loughborough University in Leicestershire, while The Royal College of Art, in London, is top for art and design and Bartlett School of Architecture, part of University College London (UCL), is the best for architecture.

The Institute of Education, also part of UCL, comes out top for education and the University of Sussex is highest ranked for development studies.

'Enduring value'

Mr Sowter said: "Much of the highly cited research that has contributed to UK success this year will have come about as a result of collaboration with EU universities and as a consequence of participation in EU schemes.”

He said the UK’s success in league tables reflects the benefits of being part of European research networks like Horizon 2020 and study-abroad schemes like Erasmus, reported Sean Coughlan for the BBC.

He added: "As our date for departure approaches, this year's results serve as a reminder of the enduring value provided by close collaboration with researchers, universities, and industry across the world."


Last month, UK university heads signed an open letter warning that it could take them "decades to recover" from a no-deal Brexit. In it, they raised concerns about losing academic staff and students from the EU and missing out on £90 billion in European research funding.

The government has said that it wants to negotiate access to European research networks and protect student exchange arrangements. Universities Minister Chris Skidmore said that UK universities are still attracting EU students in what he calls an "increasingly competitive global market.”

He added: "The latest UCAS data shows that overall the numbers of applicants and acceptances from EU nationals to full-time undergraduate higher education were both higher than in 2017, with the number of acceptances from the EU at a record high.”

Regarding academic staff from the EU, the Department for Education said all EU citizens who are UK residents before the end of 2020 can apply to the EU Settlement Scheme, which is being "piloted with the higher education sector."


In a thread about whether less EU students will come to the UK after Brexit, TSR member Realitysreflexx said: “EU students that want a British education will still get one, but it becomes more likely that if international fees are applied after Brexit, which they surely will be, that only the really well-off/borderline rich will be able to come.

“To be totally honest when I tell people at home in Germany I study in England in the summer there's a look of amazement. How am I paying for it? And honestly with the increase in inflation in the UK, it’s getting out of hand.

“[In] first year, I paid £4,033 for the year for accommodation. Now in third year prices have shot up! £5,100 pounds for the year, for the same room. Off-campus, non-catered. So unless the student loans have increased (which I don't get) something in the UK education sector needs a looking over. Or possibly no-one who isn't British or extremely rich will ever study in the UK.

“The Chinese may actually stop coming also if the British unis fall in the rankings, which could easily become an issue if they can't freely collaborate through European research funds.”

Overnight change?

JohanGRK said that whether or not less EU students come to the UK depends on how appealing a university or course is, tuition fee rises after Brexit and the state of the UK job market.

He added: “In some countries, a UK degree (irrespective of where it's from) is respected as a 'good thing' in itself. You'd have to go through a very radical change in thinking (which would serve no purpose other than being petty and vindictive) to get that attitude to change. There's also no reason as to why UK unis would become less respected overnight because of Brexit. If there is a decline, it will be a slow, long-term decline, as research funding dries up and prominent academics move (back) to Europe or the US.”

And in a thread about Norway telling students to avoid UK universities, Doonesbury expressed his concerns about a no-deal Brexit and the future of Erasmus: “If we have an agreed Brexit then the two-year interim comes into play and Erasmus would be secured until 2020 at least. No deal puts even 2020 in doubt.”

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