Since the Brexit vote, universities in the UK have been in a state of heightened anxiety. University heads have been trying to see through the fog of uncertainty, wondering what the changes will mean for the Higher Education sector and for the links to Europe and beyond that, they’ve painstakingly forged over decades.

Those links extend far beyond students, of course – research collaboration networks and funding streams are both potentially under threat. But as we reported a few months ago, EU student applications are already down, even though international student numbers as a whole are holding up. Now, EU student applications look set to plummet, as the government has announced plans to treat EU students like any other international students – and charge them accordingly.

What do EU students currently pay, and how would this change?

Under EU Free Movement regulations, EU students in the UK – and UK students elsewhere in the EU – are considered domestic students. EU students at UK universities therefore pay the same tuition fees (currently £9250 per year for an undergraduate course), and have the same eligibility to take out student loans to help with the cost. The Guardian reports that 135,000 EU students studied at UK universities last year, under the present, relatively advantageous, conditions.

After Brexit, EU students would have to find up to £20,000 per year to study at a UK institution, and would lose their automatic access to government funding. Vice chancellors from across the UK are urging the government to rethink these plans.

How will this impact British universities and the UK economy?

Again as we’ve reported before, international students represent a massive net benefit to the UK economy, and any move that risks reducing their numbers will be to the detriment of the UK economy. A HEPI report published last year estimated that the consequences of treating EU applicants like non-EU international students could lead to a massive 60% drop in EU student numbers and cost the UK economy an extra £2 billion.

However, not all universities – and certainly not all courses – will be impacted equally by these changes. Although EU nationals study at all types of UK university, their representation at elite, research-intensive Russell Group universities, and on postgraduate Master’s and PhD courses. The Guardian reports that the London School of Economics (LSE) has already drawn up a list of courses that it fears will close if EU students lose their privileged status in the UK. Other high-ranking Russell Group institutions – especially those in the UK’s more desirable cosmopolitan cities – are likely to be similarly affected.

The Brexit “brain drain” and its intangible consequences

But it’s the impact on a particular tier of course that is causing the most alarm. Strikingly, EU undergraduates at UK universities are twice as likely to continue to do a Master’s degree – at the same institution or another British university – than their British-born counterparts. And the numbers who stay on to do PhDs are correspondingly higher as well.

Some of the consequences of tinkering with this model are obvious, immediate, and material. The loss of revenue will be substantial, and taught Master’s courses in fairly niche subjects are likely to be among the most reliant on EU numbers to remain viable. But there are also longer-term consequences.

Today’s postgraduate students are the research and teaching staff at tomorrow’s elite universities. Historically, the UK’s appeal to international students has meant that our universities have been able to recruit and retain the finest minds from across the world. Many non-British academics arrived in the UK as students and are now research leaders in their fields, bringing prestige and funds to British universities. Recruiting fewer EU postgrads will naturally mean a “brain drain” to other EU nations, potentially leading to a loss of prestige and status for the UK as a major research hub. More intangibly, EU postgraduates who study at UK universities but subsequently return to their home countries do so with a cultural affinity for Britain, and knowledge of Britain’s research culture, and a network of UK research contacts. All of these help to maintain and strengthen the UK’s ties to world-leading international research.

The consequences of any ill-considered moves to strip EU students of their domestic fee status will reverberate around the UK Higher Education sector for decades to come. It is imperative that the British government acts now, either to ensure reciprocal access for EU and UK students as part of any Brexit deal or to broker reciprocal arrangements on an individual basis with the EU’s leading nations for research.