The implications of Brexit on Irish Higher Education

Ned Costello, CEO of the Irish Universities Association, argues that a UK exit from the European Union would likely have a significant negative impact on Irish students in the UK, British students in Ireland, and the Irish Higher Education sector in general.

Each year, around this time, we are reminded of the close nature of the relationship between the UK and Ireland … BAFTA awards for films and performances which both countries can justifiably claim (Brooklyn and Room in 2016), and the healthy on- and-off-the-pitch passions and rivalries of Six Nations rugby…

The relationship between Irish and UK universities is little different. Most Irish universities developed out of an early British model, albeit in very different political, social and economic contexts. However, the fundamentals of geographical proximity, a common language, economic ties and cultural affinities have all helped ensure that our IE-UK academic networks remain strong.

And while we have openly embraced the broad opportunities which the European project and wider internationalisation have brought, for Irish universities our UK colleagues remain key partners in many spheres.

HESA statistics show that in 2014/15, Irish domiciled students were the third largest group of EU students in UK higher education behind Germany and France (close to 11,000). The HESA data also shows, however, that in 2010/11 Irish students were the largest group. In any case, the current number of Irish students in the UK as a proportion of our own domestic student population (6.3%) is much higher than in any other country, and reflects the close links between our countries as well as the strong demand from Irish students for higher education at home and abroad.

Irish statistics likewise show that UK students (not taking into account Northern Ireland domiciled students) are by far the largest EU student group in Ireland, over 250% higher than from Germany or France, although the actual numbers remain modest. The UK numbers in Ireland actually increased by 38% between 2012/13 and 2014/15, with students possibly drawn by the significant difference in undergraduate fees and the fact that UK student grants and loans are fully available to UK students studying at Irish HEIs.

Indeed, given the ongoing precarious financial situation faced by Irish universities, strong domestic demographic growth as well as increased demand from other EU and international students, a reversal of these flows would present a significant challenge for Ireland. But even more than the financial issues which would arise, it would damage the very healthy social and economic benefits which arise from the two way flows of human capital.

While we don’t hold breakdowns of the individual nationalities of non-Irish EU citizens working in Irish universities, the UK contingent is certainly the largest at every level. This is also true of external examiners, reviewers, supervisors and interviewers. Likewise, there has been a healthy flow of academics from Ireland to the UK right up to the most senior level of Vice Chancellor and Principal. These close academic labour market relationships could be severely distorted in the event of Brexit.

In terms of research, the importance for Ireland of the relationship with the UK is just as strong, or perhaps even stronger. 72% of the total Irish drawdown from the EU Research Framework Programme 7 (FP7) was for projects which also involved a UK partner and there were more collaborative links with UK institutions than with any other country. Close to 50% of Irish-based applications to and successful recipients of the EU-funded Marie Skłodowska-Curie research awards chose the UK as their destination, around five times greater than the next most favoured countries.

This experience from FP7 shows that, if the very ambitious targets set by the Irish government for Horizon 2020 drawdown, and also by the governments of Ireland and Northern Ireland for joint success in H2020 are to be reached, our research relationship with the UK needs to be strengthened. The good news based on results available so far, is that a 62% increase in North-South research funding has already been secured, compared to the same period in FP7, with important participation by industry partners; an additional North-South objective.

The potential implications of a Brexit are viewed with anxiety by Irish universities, as they are indeed by the wider Irish public services, businesses and society. Obviously, the precise consequences of Brexit would depend on subsequent negotiations. The prospect of students crossing the Irish Sea and the North-South border being charged international fees, or of recipients of EU funding no longer being able to bring this to the UK, or of UK partners no longer being eligible for European programmes, certainly obliges us to pause for thought. There is particular concern regarding the potential implications for North-South cooperation on the island of Ireland, where European support has been one of the essential catalysts for the positive developments of recent years, not simply in financial terms. And last but not least, we would loath to lose a reliable and helpful partner at the table in Brussels.

Ned Costello is CEO of IUA, the Irish universities’ representation.

NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

This article first appeared on the blog of Universities UK.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

One thought on “The implications of Brexit on Irish Higher Education

  1. Ned Costello, CEO of the Irish Universities Association, argues that a UK exit from the European Union would likely have a significant negative impact on Irish students in the UK, British students in Ireland, and the Irish Higher Education sector in general.


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