Written by Joanna Hughes

Stakeholders have been wondering what Brexit might mean for international mobility since the UK opted out of the EU. Now comes news that the much-dreaded “brain drain” has already begun, with top universities reporting a drop in PhD applications from European students. Here’s a closer look at the phenomenon, as recently reported by The Guardian.

A Sinking Ship?

According to early figures, the number of non-British students starting postgraduate research at Russell Group universities dropped by 9 percent between the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 academic years. This is a significant hit, given that EU students represent a significant share of Russell Group PhD students -- 27 percent, 22 percent, and 19 percent for math, computer science, and the physical sciences, respectively.

This is particularly troubling news for the research sector, as insiders say they’re losing the best and brightest talent due to concerns over Brexit. Campaign for the Defence of British Universities spokesperson John Dainton told The Guardian, “I feel like Britain is right back where we were in the 1970s when I was a young postdoc. We are losing young people.”

Meanwhile, a biophysics professor from France who moved to the US after completing his degree in Britain before ultimately returning to the UK laments the loss of the welcoming Britain that lured him back.  “Part of the reason I decided to return to the UK was this openness Bow now there is a very big question mark for people who are not yet in the UK and who haven’t already experienced that openness first hand,” he said.

Fearing the Future

But the impact of Brexit isn’t limited to new PhDs. Already-enrolled students are also considering leaving due to concerns about everything from whether their qualifications will be recognized in Europe after Brexit to research funding -- despite measures by the government to reassure them.

According to Russell Group director of policy Jessica Cole, this may be a case of too little, too late. “People doing a PhD here already know they can stay," she told The Guardian. "But the government needs to get that message out as forcefully as possible. Not only that you can stay -- but that we want you to stay."



Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.
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