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What (else) could a no-deal Brexit look like for HE?

David Morris thinks through the chaos to come for the sector if there's a "No Deal" Brexit in the year ahead.
This article is more than 3 years old

David Morris is the Vice Chancellor's policy adviser at the University of Greenwich and former Deputy Editor of Wonkhe. He writes in a personal capacity.

Given the growing chatter about the possibility of No Deal Brexit, I thought that it would be helpful to look more closely at what it could (and I stress could) mean for higher education and universities.

We do now of course have some guidance from the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) on “how to prepare if the UK leaves the EU with no deal”, but in many areas it raises more questions than it answers.

The first task is to establish what ‘No Deal’ means. Most assumptions about No Deal presume that there is actually some sort of small or temporary deal, perhaps around trade, migration status, and cooperation in various projects, or the implementation of the currently proposed ‘transition period’ up to 31st December 2020. This is what the Institute for Government has called a ‘Basic’ or ‘Amicable’ No Deal, where the UK and EU are unable to come to terms of major issues such as trade and customs, but are able to agree to continue the status quo (at least temporarily) in critical areas of public policy such as border control, citizens’ rights, nuclear regulation, policing, and aviation.

But a real, bad-tempered No Deal where negotiations collapse means that at 11pm on 29th March 2019 (midnight Brussels time, of course), the UK becomes a ‘third country’ to the EU. All rights and responsibilities that the UK and its citizens have as members of the EU would come to an end outright, as well as the beginning of trade on the now ubiquitous ‘WTO terms’.

Perhaps most significantly, in the absence of government or Parliamentary action, all aspects of UK law that are dependent upon our membership of the EU in some way are thrown into a sort of legal and regulatory purgatory. It is unclear what the law would be in a whole range of areas of policy. If the government was unwilling or unable to act, we would suppose that UK Courts would have a significant amount of influence on what would happen.

Even if there were some clarity on what the rules are, it is far from clear that the government would have the expertise, infrastructure or personnel to enforce these rules, such as border guards, food inspectors, customs officials, and other assorted civil servants. Preparing for an orderly Brexit over two to three years was already enough of a challenge for Whitehall. Preparing for a No Deal Brexit in a matter of months is an impossibility.   


In the event of a No Deal, we should still expect the government to continue offering the student loan-book to EU students starting in 2019-20. However, the prospect of further extensions of this access, which already appears unlikely if the government’s latest Brexit White Paper is anything to go by, would be almost impossible.

More urgently, whilst the DExEU briefings confirm that the government is underwriting Erasmus+ funding for all successful bids submitted while we are still in, the immigration status of the 15,000 British students who participate and would be living and studying in the EU would also be uncertain in the event of a No Deal. The immediate challenges for students abroad would relate to immigration and citizenship rights, which would vary between EU countries (see below). But in the medium term, UK participation in Erasmus+ would cease in a No Deal Brexit, as the government’s stated plans to remain a member of the current programme until the end of 2020 are contingent on some form of transition deal with the EU.


The only practical – not least moral – option for the government would be to unilaterally implement the arrangements for settled status outlined so far by the Home Office. However, this has so far been contingent on a quid-pro-quo arrangement in negotiations regarding UK nationals in the EU. In the event of a No Deal, each EU country would be left to make its own decision regarding the rights of UK citizens living there.

This an area in which 25,000 staff and 80,000 students in universities across the UK would face considerable uncertainty about their precise legal status. If the government has not created the necessary legal and administrative framework for clarifying and securing EU nationals’ rights in the UK, we could see chaos at passport offices, hospitals, local councils, and in the immigration compliance offices of universities. The number of unknown-unknowns here are too great to speculate. Sadly, all one can do to prepare is hope that the government is both willing and capable to bring some surety.


The UK and its research institutions will no longer be members of FP9 (Horizon 2020) if there is No Deal, given our budgetary contributions would end. Sam Gyimah announced back in July that the government will cover any lost funding until December 2020, even in the event of a No Deal Brexit. The government has so far indicated its ambition to continue existing collaborations, including participation in the next EU research programme, and to pay for these if necessaryl. And whilst DExEU briefings indicate that the government intends UK researchers and businesses to be able to apply to and participate in Horizon 2020 (and other EU research) calls open to “third country” participants from the date of exit, (with funding provided via the guarantee), the government will still have to agree details of our continued participation as a third country.

When it comes to a No Deal, the government’s funding guarantees might stand, but there would still be administrative questions. Would institutions need to apply for this funding? How would they demonstrate the lost income from EU sources? How long would this process take and would BEIS and UKRI be ready to provide researchers with the information they need come March 29th? The government has said that UKRI “will be developing systems to ensure… funding can continue” and that “current .. recipients … will soon be invited to provide initial data about project(s) on a portal”, but there would also be critical questions to the EU Commission and members states to answer, particularly regarding the status of UK researchers participating in projects within the EU.

The same questions will hopefully be less pertinent to those universities in receipt of European Regional Development and European Social funding. Thankfully, this is an area where the government seems a little more ahead of the curve, with work already progressing on setting up the post-Brexit replacement: the UK Shared Prosperity Fund. In theory, the government will be ready to administer this from 29th March 2019, regardless of the Brexit deal agreed.

As has been noted, it is less the loss of research funding but rather the loss of networks and collaborative projects that would really hurt UK academia. This would only be magnified by a No Deal Brexit, as the UK’s withdrawal from the EU Open Skies agreement would mean no planes would be able to take-off from our airports. This would even apply to destinations outside Europe if the UK is unable to agree new open skies agreements with third-party countries such as the US. If No Deal begins to look more likely, perhaps hold off on booking that prestigious academic conference overseas for next April, or at least, make sure your insurance has you covered. Students looking to get home for the Easter holidays will sadly not be so lucky.

Science and regulation

Particular areas of scientific inquiry could be very directly affected by a No Deal outcome. The UK’s immediate expulsion from Euratom might be cushioned by financial guarantees, but would prevent cross-border transfer of nuclear materials – such as for lab equipment or healthcare – and also leave the UK without its own nuclear regulatory infrastructure. The government might claim that it’d be willing to continue imports. Still, I don’t know about you, but when nuclear materials are being moved around the country I’d really like to be assured that someone is ensuring that it’s safe.

The absence of a medicines regulator and associated international agreements would mean pharmaceutical and medical exports from the UK to the EU would cease. DExEU have published outlines of arrangements for imports, but in the absence of a recognised regulator of medicines, the EU would simply not accept UK exports. Many pharmaceutical companies that rely on such exports of course have close partnerships with universities. The same challenges could also hurt the chemical industry, biosciences, and most notably, agriculture. At the very least, importing materials from the EU for the purposes of scientific research would certainly become more expensive for universities.


This is only a taste of the obvious difficulties that would become apparent in a No Deal Brexit situation. In many ways, it’s almost impossible for universities to prepare for it. Arguably the best way is simply to try and keep informed – to look past the misinformation and speculation flooding the broadsheets and airwaves – and to be as open, transparent and communicative with staff and students as is possible as things develop.

There are likely many twists and turns ahead on this road as negotiations enter what Sir Alex Ferguson would call ‘squeaky bum time’. If No Deal is really a possibility there could be a significant chance of market panic in the early part of 2019 – forcing the government to back down in this crazy game of chicken. A temporary transition arrangement could at least kick the can down the road or give the government time to put the legal and administrative infrastructure in place to mollify some of the problems listed above.

Predictions are clearly a fool’s business right now. But I’ll say one thing for certain. A real, proper, No Deal Brexit, on March 29th 2019, looks very, very, bad, for everyone except currency speculators. Hope for the best, but don’t be surprised if we get the worst.

One response to “What (else) could a no-deal Brexit look like for HE?

  1. Thanks David for the update – it feels like it really will be squeaky bum time. The only thing I would say is that I don’t think it’s “almost impossible” to prepare.

    Private businesses are looking at where the risks to their on-going operations lie and then concentrating on those that are rated ‘at danger’ in all Brexit scenarios. Acting just on those areas means having acted before the worst (or the least worst) happens.

    Private businesses are also putting together Brexit teams, empowered and responsible to their boards. Is that also happening in the sector, or is it seen as a policy issue?

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