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‘No deal’ Brexit: implications for universities and minimising risk

Universities UK (UUK) continues to make clear to government that a Brexit ‘no deal’ scenario is highly undesirable. This page sets out the range of implications and mitigations for universities associated with a possible ‘no deal’ Brexit outcome. 

Updated December 2018


There remains a risk that the Brexit negotiations could end without a deal being reached on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. Unless further preparatory actions are taken, or commitments made by government, such an outcome would create immediate uncertainty for EU nationals in UK universities, prospective students and staff from across the EU, and for those participating in any of the Horizon 2020, Structural Funds or Erasmus+ programmes.

Suggested actions to mitigate risk for universities include how government could build on the stability measures it has already put in place for universities that would help minimise any disruption in the event of no deal, to provide greater certainty for the university sector over the coming months. This includes government committing to:

  • make no substantive changes to rules governing EU migration until 1 January 2021
  • strengthen and clarify its existing underwrites for participation in EU programmes
  • establish back-up structures to mirror Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+ where required
There are also several suggested actions for universities to consider.

Even in the event of no deal, UUK wants to see the government work to secure an effective longer-term settlement for universities as set out in our Brexit priorities paper, through dialogue both domestically with the higher education sector and with the European Commission.

What a ‘no deal’ Brexit might mean for universities 

If the Brexit negotiations end without a deal in place, then: 

  • there would be great uncertainty on whether any commitments agreed as part of the Draft Withdrawal Agreement on citizens’ rights and continued participation in Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+ still apply
  • there would be no agreement on implementing a transition period between the date of Brexit and 31 December 2020, during which time it was envisioned that freedom of movement would essentially still apply
  • there would be no certainty on what the UK’s future relationship with the EU would look like, including in areas like the mobility of citizens and access to EU programmes

Any impact from a no deal Brexit could result in the following outcomes taking effect on 29 March 2019:

  • EU nationals entering the UK could be treated as third country nationals, subject to non-EEA immigration rules and requirements 
  • the UK’s ability to participate in Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+ could cease, because there would be no legal obligation for the UK to pay any financial settlement on exit 
  • the continued mutual recognition of professional qualifications covered by the current EU Directive would be uncertain

Measures taken by the government to date to provide certainty in the event of no deal

The government has already committed to a number of stability measures beyond March 2019 (including technical notices) that UUK has actively lobbied for. These are set out below. 

EU citizens’ rights: the Government has published a policy paper on citizens’ rights in the event of a no deal. It confirms that in the event of a no deal, the EU Settlement Scheme will continue to be implemented, enabling EU citizens and their family members living in the UK by 29 March 2019 to secure their status and continue to be able to work, study, and access benefits and services in the UK on the same basis after we exit the EU as they do now. The scheme will be fully open by 30 March 2019 as planned. The planned application deadline will be brought forward to 31 December 2020 in the event of a no deal.

Horizon 2020: in July 2018, the UK government extended a commitment to underwrite payments of Horizon 2020 awards so that it covers grant applications for funding streams open to third country participation (i.e. multi-beneficiary grants) that are submitted after the UK leaves the EU in March 2019. In September 2018, UKRI launched an online portal for UK-based recipients of Horizon 2020 funding to log details of their grants.

Structural Funds: the same government guarantee of EU funding also underwrites the UK’s allocation for structural and investment fund projects under the EU budget period to 2020, and managing authorities will continue to sign new projects until programme closure. 

Erasmus+: In July 2018, the UK government extended a commitment on EU funding to also underwrite the payments of all competitive grants to include centralised Erasmus+ actions (e.g. collaborative projects). On mobility specifically, the government has also agreed to extend its underwrite, although subject to agreement with the EU, until the end of 2020, as set out in the government’s Technical Notice on Erasmus+ in the UK if there’s no Brexit deal.

EU student fee status/financial support: governments across the UK have confirmed that EU students starting a course in 2019/20 (the first cycle post-Brexit) will still be eligible for home fee status and for financial support as per existing rules. These announcements have not been caveated as being subject a Brexit deal being agreed, and UUK has been informed by the Department for Education that these commitments (for England) would be honoured even in the event of no deal. 

Qualifications recognition: the Brexit White Paper states that the government wants to establish a system on mutual recognition of professional qualifications (MRPQ) that covers the same range of professions as the existing MRPQ Directive. The government has also issued a 'no deal' technical notice on professional qualifications.

Remaining areas of uncertainty and recommended actions 

Despite the above measures, there remains a substantial amount of uncertainty and unanswered questions for universities should the UK face a no deal outcome. This includes a lack of clarity on:

  • what future immigration rules and requirements will be in place for EU nationals arriving after 29 March 2019 
  • how the government’s underwrites would work in practice, including who would distribute the funds, how any contracts would continue and what reporting and audit requirements there would be 
  • whether UK universities could access replacements to mono-beneficiary parts of Horizon 2020, such as the European Research Council (ERC) 
  • whether a replacement to Erasmus+ would be made available to UK universities 
  • what would be the legal status of Erasmus+ participant and institutional partnerships between UK universities and their Erasmus+ partner universities

Based on these areas of uncertainty, UUK suggests a number of actions that government should take to shore up stability across the university sector as it faces the prospect of no deal.

  • Ensuring that any substantive changes to rules governing EU migration are preceded by a period of two years to allow universities and prospective staff and students to prepare for any new system.
  • Clarifying how the underwrite for EU grants will work in practice, including who will administer funds/make funding decisions and what would be required of universities in receipt of funds – particularly in the first year for Erasmus+ when applications will be made before the exit date and only awarded after the exit date. There needs to be clarity on what the measures of success would be. 
  • Setting out its contingency plans for replacing access to single beneficiary Horizon 2020 funds, largely the ERC and Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions. 
  • Setting out its contingency plans for replacing access to Erasmus+.

Further, UUK suggests that universities consider taking the following action in order to prepare for a possible no deal scenario: 
  • speaking with European partners regularly to share understanding of the impact of no deal and collaboratively plan for such an outcome
  • being mindful of how courses are described to prospective students in terms of fee/loan status and qualifications recognition 
  • working with existing staff with non-UK nationalities and considering communication to this group around the publication of the EU Settlement Scheme 
These suggested actions are set out in more detail in the following section, covering: EU citizens’ rights and migration rules; participation in the Horizon 2020, Erasmus+ and Structural Funds programmes, and on student fees and qualifications. 

Other matters 

There are additional issues likely to require consideration in preparation for a no deal scenario. This includes: 

  • procurement, supply chains, commercial contracts
  • funding, cash flow, tax/VAT
  • banking relationships, access to EU payment systems
  • travel arrangements between the UK and EU
  • travel and health insurance for students and staff
  • data protection and transfers of data
  • intellectual property
  • recruitment
  • energy / participation in Euratom and other programmes
  • regulation
  • recognised professional qualifications held by staff 

UUK is working with universities and sector organisations to develop information in these areas. Further information can be found in our briefing.

Recommended actions for government and universities 

Read Universities UK's recommendations for government and universities in the event of a 'no deal' Brexit as a PDF (406 KB).

  1. ​Citizens’ rights and future migration rules
  2. Horizon 2020
  3. Structural Funds (ESIF)
  4. Erasmus+
  5. EU student fee status / financial support
  6. Qualifications recognition
  7. Other matters

Updates, comments and questions

This page and supporting documents will be updated as and when required, including when relevant government announcements are made, or actions taken, that address areas of uncertainty, but also based on Universities UK members’ feedback. 


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