By Joe Crombie
The 21st century has seen Welsh universities flourish as student enrolment and campuses grew seemingly without limit. The higher education sector in Wales now directly contributes around £1.4 billion to the economy and indirectly powers around £1.4 billion through dependent industries. This growth was in part facilitated by the European Union, through funding grants or loans to Welsh institutions or through the student mobility and research collaboration that freedom of movement allowed. Brexit will have profound effects on Wales, but the higher education sector will feel particularly exposed as an industry heavily linked to the EU.
In recent years, British universities have embarked on a building binge. At the end of 2014, annual capital expenditure by British universities had reached £2.5 billion, with 500,000 square metres of new space being added. The rough equivalent area of around five new universities.
Welsh universities were no exception and saw major expansion. Swansea University recently opened its Bay Campus, which has allowed the university to double in size and further act as an engine of economic growth for the region. The funding for this huge expansion came from three chief sources: the Welsh Government, EU and European Investment Bank. Indeed, the funding from the EU amounted to £95 million. To the east, the opening of the prestigious Cardiff University Brain Research Imaging Centre was made possible in part by £4.5 million of European funding. Welsh universities have been expanding dramatically and while the rise in student fees has resulted in a drive to energise facilities to improve student satisfaction, the money to turn proposals into reality has often come in contribution from EU institutions and there is no certainty that an alternative funding stream will be created after Brexit.
Funding for campus expansion is not the only place that Welsh universities have benefited from European cash. Funding for research to British institutions from the EU amounts to around £1 billion a year. In Wales the EU contributes around £35 million annually towards research or about 16% of the total Welsh institutions receive. In the rest of the UK the private sector is responsible for around 45% of total research funding but in Wales this drops to around 10% highlighting a greater dependence by Welsh institutions on European money compared to their British peers. The quality of research an institution puts out is a key barometer for its quality and any loss of research funding could detrimentally effect the quality and global standing of our universities.
While the financial connection of Welsh institutions to the EU is clear, the human link is just as valuable. Around a sixth of researchers at British universities come from elsewhere in the EU and any change in visa arrangements could make Wales look less attractive and result in a drain of academic talent and a difficulty to cooperate on future European wide projects. Around 17% of Cardiff Universities academic staff are EU nationals and the presence of academic talent from across Europe has been vital to the success of Welsh institutions. Student applications have already seen a decline, with an over 8% decrease in applications to Welsh universities from EU students. A fall in EU students has the potential of reducing the roughly £130 million they put into Welsh universities and their local economies. Indeed, the onset of Brexit is a factor that Prof Colin Riordan, Vice-Chancellor of Cardiff University has acknowledged will “probably” lead to a decline in applications.
The support Welsh universities will receive post-Brexit is unclear and this situation is likely to continue in the short term. But what is clear is that the expansion of universities in Wales has in part been driven by the financial and human input of the European Union. If higher education in Wales is to continue to thrive, it needs the support of a state that recognises the huge impact it plays in contributing to the prosperity of Wales and its people.