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Top European researchers need certainty about their futures in the UK

5 December 2017

The UK could lose some of its brightest minds who are conducting life-changing research unless they receive long-term clarity from the Brexit negotiations.​

Universities UK has today published a collection of case studies highlighting the research and stories of leading EU academics working in UK universities. They illustrate the world-class research carried out by European staff in the UK and how this could be hindered by any further Brexit uncertainty.

17% (33,735) of academic staff and 6% (12,490) of professional services staff at UK universities are from other EU countries. Many European academics and researchers are often employed in strategically important and vulnerable areas such as STEM subjects – science, engineering or technology and mathematics – and other highly skilled areas such as economics and modern languages.

The comments come ahead of the summit of EU leaders in mid-December (14–15 Dec) at which they will decide whether sufficient progress has been made to allow the Brexit negotiations to move to issues such as trade and future relations.

Commenting on the case studies, Alistair Jarvis, Chief Executive of Universities UK, said: “There are over 46,000 EU nationals working in UK universities and they make a vitally important contribution to our work. Many are top researchers leading the world in their fields, working in vital areas such as public health and climate change.  They and their families deserve certainty about their futures in the UK.

“There is now a need to make sure that a reshaped, post-Brexit immigration system encourages talented international university staff to choose the UK.  If not, we risk losing them to competitor countries.

“There is also urgent need for clarity on the UK’s participation in Horizon 2020, the EU’s programme for research and innovation, beyond Brexit.  This scheme enhances the impact of our research by providing access to vital networks, funding and talent.  We have recently seen the UK’s participation and success rate fall due to uncertainty about future participation.”​

Case studies include:​

Dr Simona Francese, Sheffield Hallam University. World leading fingerprint analysis expert

Dr Francese is originally from Italy and has worked in the UK for 10 years.

She said: “Working with the Home Office has allowed me to apply my research to real life problems with considerable impact. There are no guarantees my research will be funded after Brexit.

“I love and miss my country, but I am also very loyal to the UK. My hard work is a form of payback for the life that I have had here. Brexit has inevitably triggered unpleasant feelings of not being wanted, but I can never and will never forget all that the UK has offered me.”

Dr Swenja Surminski, London School of Economics. World leader in climate change and flood risk

Dr Surminski has spent 17 years in the UK and is originally from Germany.

She said: “Since my arrival in the UK I felt integrated and my German nationality didn’t really seem to matter. In fact, there were many occasions when I represented UK businesses in UK government discussions. For me, the real value arises from the impact that our research has, using our analysis to influence those who make decisions about the climate.

“We also play a role in our local communities, beyond our work and are rooted here through our families. My husband is also German and so are our four children, who were all born in the UK and feel at home here.”

Professor Derk-Jan Dijk, University of Surrey. World leader in sleep science

Professor Dijk has worked in the UK for 18 years and is originally from The Netherlands.

He said: “I decided to work in the UK because of its reputation for social justice, free movement and its scientific research reputation. Brexit means that this sense of security and being part of the European academic community is destroyed. As a non-UK EU citizen, I felt equal. As a ‘settler’, I and my family will no longer feel so.”


Key facts:


  • According to the latest data (HESA), there are 46,000 European (European Economic Area (EEA)) nationals employed by UK universities and 32,000 non-EEA nationals.

  • This means that 17% (33,735) of academic staff and 6% (12,490) of professional services staff at UK universities are from other EU countries.

  • In 2015–16, 59% of EEA staff worked in departments defined by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) as science, engineering, technology and mathematics (their equivalent of STEM). There are also high concentrations of EEA staff in demand and growth subjects such as economics and econometrics (36%) and modern languages (36%).

  • Specific nationalities often make up a high proportion of the EEA nationals working as academics in specific departments:      

    • Italian nationals make up 28% of all EEA academics working in Economics departments

    • German nationals make up 25% of all EEA academics working in Politics and International Studies departments

    • Italian nationals make up 24% and Greek and German nationals 21% each of all EEA academics working in Classics departments

    • French nationals make up 22% and Spanish nationals 21% of all EEA academics working in Modern Languages departments

    • Spanish nationals make up 20% of EEA academics working in Chemistry departments​

  • As well as academic roles, a significant number of European nationals also work in professional services roles, including IT workers, finance, marketing, HR, catering, security, librarians, administration, alumni developments and technical staff.





  1. Universities UK is the representative organisation for the UK’s universities. Founded in 1918, its mission is to be the definitive voice for all universities in the UK, providing high quality leadership and support to its members to promote a successful and diverse higher education sector. With 136 members and offices in London, Cardiff (Universities Wales) and Edinburgh (Universities Scotland), it promotes the strength and success of UK universities nationally and internationally. Visit: www.universitiesuk.ac.uk

Key Contacts

Steven Jefferies

Steven Jefferies

Head of Media
Universities UK

Luke Lambert

Luke Lambert

Press and Social Media Officer
Universities UK

Clara Plackett

Clara Plackett

Senior Press and Social Media Officer
Universities UK


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