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EU students and Brexit: will we lose best and brightest

Research overview

Of the half a million foreign students in the UK, approximately 125,000 are from the European Union (EU).

Many of those students are high fliers and will graduate with a good degree in the STEM subjects – Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths, skills deemed crucial for British industry – skills in short supply among the current graduate workforce.

A considerable number of them will go on to work in the financial and technology sectors, which the Government is keen to see thrive. But how might this change when the UK leaves the EU? Research using administrative data, which tracks millions of graduates into work, suggests universities and businesses could lose some of brightest and most highly skilled graduates, which would present a serious blow to the UK workforce and economy.

Key findings

EU students are high performers and go on to occupy a strong position in the labour market. They increase the size of the UK’s skilled workforce.

  • Around two thirds of EU postgraduates study STEM subjects
  • In 2011-12, 5,446 EU undergraduates and 6,941 EU postgraduates in the UK graduated with a STEM degree
  • More than half of EU graduates are still in the UK six months after graduation
  • EU graduates outperform their UK peers, securing better degrees and better jobs
  • EU graduates are two and a half times more likely to go onto further study

Brexit may reduce the flow of these high performing students through a number of routes:

  • Reduced EU funding for research resulting in fewer EU-funded paid postgraduate places
  • The UK may be perceived as a less desirable place to study resulting in fewer EU undergraduates coming and then staying
  • Unlikely that Brexit will make it easier for young EU students to study and work in the UK.

How the research helps

As the Government negotiates a path towards Brexit, being clear on the implications for the university sector and the UK workforce will help identify priority areas for action to mitigate any potential negative consequences.

This work provides a clear picture of the type of EU students who come to the UK to get a degree and, for those who stay, the contribution they make to a skilled workforce compared with their UK-born counterparts.

In 2014, the UK Commission for Employment and Skills concluded that the UK’s “key strength” in terms of international competitiveness “lies in the size of its pool of high skilled labour”. This strength is directly linked to immigration and the research provides useful and compelling evidence of the contribution that EU graduates make to this pool. 

Impact

The research has been produced as a briefing for policymakers and Higher Education stakeholders and has attracted national media coverage. It has been shared widely with groups interested in equality in the HE sector and in maintaining and promoting the benefi ts of a diverse student population.

The research

The research looked at the degree, jobs and wages of two million UK and EU graduates six months after they left university in the period from 2003-4 to 2011-12.

Further information and links

The Best and the Brightest: EU students at UK universities and as highly skilled graduate workers in the UK, Research Briefing

EU students do very well out of studying in the UK – Brexit might scupper that, The Conversation

Brexit would drive high-achieving EU students away from UK, study shows, The Guardian

Project team

Dr. Renee Luthra, Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex

Greta Morando, Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex

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Page last updated: 06/09/2017