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Guest Blog – Brexit: a noose slowly strangling academic research in the UK?

Blog from Michelle Naessens

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Guest Blog – Brexit: a noose slowly strangling academic research in the UK?

In my experience, Brexit has not been talked about positively in academic circles. Even before officially leaving the EU, UK charities and institutions have seen their international funding plummet. It is still unclear exactly how much this will affect research.

I had not thoroughly looked into the effects of Brexit on academia as I had more pressing things to worry about. Ignorance is bliss after all. However, in June, the UK announced that EU students will no longer be eligible for home fee and funding status starting the 2021/2022 academic year. This includes those students wishing to pursue a PhD in the UK. This will affect me directly as I will likely be one of those students. Hence, I had to look into how exactly this would affect my chances of acquiring funding. So that is what I did.

Unfortunately, there is not a lot of information out there. As mentioned above, non-British EU nationals will no longer be eligible for home fee status, domestic funding, nor student loans. In other words, being an EU student in the UK will become more expensive (e.g. fees will almost quadruple for me, from £8,800 to £32,000 p.a.) while opportunities to pay for this will diminish. A bleak prospect to say the least. Having settled or pre-settled status prior to the 31st of December this year might make you eligible for domestic university fees and allow you to access student finance, but I could not find any official sources on this. For those lucky enough to have been in the UK for over 5 years, it might be easier to just become a British citizen. If, of course, your country of origin allows dual nationality.

Either way, I think the effects on academia will be profound. This is supported by the fact that, after the referendum in 2016, Russel Group universities saw a drop of 9% in non-British EU students starting postgraduate research courses in the 2017/2018 academic year. For universities of which between 16 and 30% of the student body is made up of non-British EU students, that is a significant number. This drop will only be exacerbated by the change in fees. Yes, having a degree from a UK university like Oxford or Cambridge can seem prestigious but is it worth it, especially now fees will increase? The UK has always been one of the most expensive places to study in Europe. But other universities within Europe have great reputations as well and don’t require you to sell your organs on the black market to be able to afford it. Although, if embarking on a PhD, you might find it easier with all your organs intact. Belgium for example only charges €600 per year in tuition fees, the Netherlands €2000, while studying in Denmark is completely free. Moreover, other countries often consider PhD students full members of staff and pay them accordingly. However, for me and many others, moving away to complete a PhD outside of the UK would mean leaving behind the life and social networks we’ve taken years to build.

Another likely possibility is that those talented researchers wanting to stay in the UK will be pushed towards industry jobs. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with industry, but simply that academia will suffer major losses because of it. A huge part of what makes a university great is its ground-breaking and innovative research. If you remove all young and inspired researchers, what are you really left with? Academia has always been about following your passion, because let’s face it, it’s not where the money is. However, following your passion must be sustainable to make it viable. Career advancement and opportunities for those EU students wishing to follow their dreams will be significantly hindered by limiting funding and increasing costs.

To be honest, with the global pandemic happening, Brexit seems like the least of our worries. Right now, it is impossible to say how exactly Brexit will affect academia and funding opportunities. One can only speculate, and despairing is hardly productive. The government may come back on their decision or institutions may find ways around it. We cannot predict what will happen until it actually does. That does not mean that Brexit does not and will not affect people’s lives, nor that it can’t be a great source of anxiety. But, for now, one can only wait and try their best to acquire that coveted funding. As the British would say, keep calm and carry on.

Do I hate myself for saying that? Definitely yes. Do I care? Not really.


Michelle Naessens is a Clinical Neuroscience researcher at the Centre for Frontotemporal Dementia, University of Cambridge. After completing her MSc in Dementia Neuroscience at UCL, Michelle moved to Cambridge to start working as a research assistant. Her work has mostly focused on investigating neuroanatomical correlates of cognitive dysfunction in frontotemporal dementia and related disorders using MRI and M/EEG. In her spare time she enjoys kickboxing, so watch out!

You can follow Michelle on Twitter         

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