Many campaign groups, who represent researchers within universities, argue that the EU is an engine that is driving the UK higher education sector forward.

Many campaign groups, who represent researchers within universities, argue that the EU is an engine that is driving the UK higher education sector forward. Organisations such as Scientists for the EU claim that if the UK were to leave the EU then UK universities will greatly suffer.

Access to higher education 

EU legislation means that students from an EU member state wishing to study in the UK have the same access to education as UK nationals. Therefore, currently eligible EU students pay the same tuition fees as UK students and can apply for the same tuition fee support. 

In 2013/14, there were 125,300 EU students in UK universities, this accounted for 28.8% of non-UK students. This represents about 6% of total university enrolment in Britain and is estimated to generate £2.27bn for the UK economy and support up to 19,000 jobs.

The Government has to provide student loans or maintenance funding for EU students who attend UK universities. In 2015, the House of Commons found that £224m was paid in fee loans to EU students on full-time courses in England (3.7% of the total loans). It is unclear how much of taxpayers’ money is lost on EU students who attend English universities but do not repay their loans. 

European research funding

The 2016 Times Higher Education European University Rankings, based on several factors to do with research, show UK universities are performing strongly. In the top 200 universities in Europe, UK universities have nearly a quarter of places (46) and seven of the top ten places. As a result, the UK does well out of EU research funding based on scientific excellence. 

The UK is one of the largest recipients of research funding in the EU. National contributions to the EU budget are not itemised, but the UK Office of National Statistics (ONS) indicative figure for the UK’s contribution to EU research and development from 2007 – 2013 was €5.4bn. 

During this time, the UK received €8.8bn - €6.9bn of Framework Programme 7 (FP7) and €1.9bn of structural funds for research and innovation activities. This represents the fourth largest share in the EU. In terms of funding awarded on a competitive basis in the period 2007 – 2013 (Framework Programme 7), the UK was the second largest recipient after Germany. 

EU support also expands the UK’s research activity through promoting international collaboration and UK universities work closely with EU partners. The Horizon 2020 programme is an example of this. The programme is the largest ever European funding programme for research and innovation. It has a grant budget of €79bn and will run until 2020. UK universities are coordinating one-third of the projects funded by Horizon 2020 for 2014/20. 

At a LSE (London School of Economics) hearing, they identified that research programmes, such as projects of Knowledge and Innovation Centres (KICS) rely on ‘a pool of resources, data and infrastructure that are beyond the capacity of a single state’. They also highlighted that the research has shared benefits for member states. 

Horizon 2020, amongst other European research programmes, do include participation from non-EU members, such as Norway, Israel and Switzerland who have ‘associated country’ status. However, during LSE’s hearing they argued that the UK’s position is not matched by non-EU participating countries. Participants at the hearing also argued that Switzerland’s contribution to research programmes has taken a marked toll since they did not agree to the EU’s policy on immigration. 

The UK has, due to its population size, the third largest delegation to the European parliament. This, combined the UK’s prowess in the high education sector, meaning that the UK has the kind of status and power on research programme that no non-EU participating country has.

European structural funding 

European structural funding is targeted at economically disadvantaged parts of the EU. Higher education institutions are able to make bids to the European Social Fund and the European Regional Development Fund. The funds are meant to support investment in innovation, businesses, skills and employment and create jobs. Swansea University, for example, received a significant buildings and equipment funding award of €49.4m from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) through the Welsh Government. 


UK universities use the EU open border policy to attract research and teaching staff from across Europe. In 2013/14, 15.5% of academic staff in UK universities were from the EU. Many universities have said free movement benefits UK universities’ competitiveness through recruiting key talent.

Opportunities for UK students

Mobility within the EU allows large numbers of UK students and researchers to study in continental Europe. The Erasmus+ programme allocates almost £1bn to help UK students do this. 
The UK is also a signatory to the Bologna process, which is focused on the need to increase compatibility in higher education across Europe. If the UK were to leave the EU, the access of EU students to UK universities and colleges would not be protected.

European Investment Bank

UK universities have been able to secure loans at favourable interest rates from the European Investment Bank (EIB). This is because 90% of the EIB’s funding is allocated to promoting growth in EU member states. The UK is the largest beneficiary of EIB university lending. In the last five years, the EIB has provided £1.45bn for investment in 20 UK universities.

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