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The UK’s exit from the European Union has presented many challenges for the higher education and research sectors. Major challenges exist through changes to immigration policy, restrictions on access to funding and general lack of clarity or continuity in regulation. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has led with more conciliatory overtones than his immediate predecessors and through the developing Windsor Framework, we are seeing an evolving relationship between the EU and UK on higher education and research.

Challenges facing researchers

Research institutions and Universities are reliant on a continued entry of new undergraduate cohorts. Whilst the total number of foreign domiciled students has continued to increase, with the most notable origin countries being China and India with increases of 41% and over 500% between 2017/18 and 2021//22. Whereas since Brexit there has been a marked decline in EU domiciled students overall. Students have declined from 2017/18  to 2021/22 from selected EU countries.

Source – Higher Education Statistics Authority

Contributing to the decline are changes in UK immigration policy, removal of government backed funding and increases in tuition fee rates. Compounding this is the UK’s 2020 choice to leave the Erasmus+ scheme, creating the Turing scheme to replace it. The Turing scheme is open to a wider range of countries and intended to promote students from Commonwealth countries and beyond in place of the EU. EU students and researchers have to apply for a visa, due to the removal of freedom of movement, further contributing to the decline. 

UK Research Environment

UK based research is funded through a mix of private sector and public sector research councils, for example the UKRI challenge fund is made up of £2.6 billion from the UK government and £3 billion from the private sector.. However this varies by technology readiness level, the higher the technology readiness level the greater the mix of private sector funding. 

Public funding is derived through UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) which in turn funds flagship facilities such as the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) and Daresbury complex. UKRI also funds research councils which fund the majority of University based research. UKRI funding draws from the two government departments and EU funding, which is due to conclude in 2027.

Whilst the UK government has committed to matching certain prior EU funding levels, this is still not concrete and may affect climate change, biomedical and computer science/AI research. In theory this will allow more fundamental early stage research to take place, however there are concerns over continued sustained private sector funding. UK inward investment has dropped by 35% between 2016 and 2020. This has resulted in a drop from private sector funding both inside and outside the UK. This results from reduced access to the single market, divergent legislation since Brexit and the general economic outlook. Further existent barriers include potential ATAS certification which prevents some collaboration with researchers outside of the UK.

How can the UK attract researchers

The two main barriers to attracting researchers into the UK are the visa regime and total compensation. On leaving the EU, this has required researchers to obtain visas, depending upon their field of research this can be onerous, whereas in STEM fields there is relative ease. Changes to the student visa regime under the Johnson government have eased this by giving students a greater period of time on their student visa, which will naturally support their continued research within the UK.

The UK is also falling behind on researcher’s salaries and stipends in comparison with the wider private sector. This has largely resulted from government and wider civil service pay restraint since 2010. Comparative institutions have not seen the same pay restraint. Given the international competition for skilled researchers, this has increased difficulty in retaining the highly skilled researchers required to keep the UK at the forefront of science. 

Changes in Government Policy

In recent months the UK government has made overtures to science and research, largely focussing on AI and sustainable energy. There has also been a fundamental reorganisation of UK government departments, with the Department of Science, Innovation and Technology rising from the corpse of BEIS (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy). However beyond this there is still a lack of commitment or substance from the government on how it intends to support UK researchers. 

The government has muted a return to the EU Horizon funding, albeit participating as a third country. However it is clear that further negotiations are required before the UK can rejoin. The Windsor Framework and the work of the Sunak government to resolve the issues left by Johnson and Truss, however further progress and commitment is required. 

Looking to the future

Whilst the UK is home to a number of world leading research centres, there are still challenges facing the sector as a whole. Pay and difficulties concerning immigration tend to be at the forefront, which are directly within the UK government to control however Brexit has certainly dealt a blow to collaboration which is at the heart of research. Only further negotiations on Horizon and the general landscape of the UK and EU post Brexit landscape can resolve this.