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Students Believe Brexit Could Damage Career Prospects

By Staff Writer

Updated December 1, 2021 Updated December 1, 2021


  • Students from within and outside of the UK are concerned about the impact Brexit could have on their career prospects, both short- and long-term.
  • Many expect UK universities to become less internationally diverse, as a result of higher fees, visa restrictions and reduced working rights.
  • Concerns about reduced higher education opportunities are equally widespread among UK students and those from elsewhere in the EU.
  • Only 9% of surveyed students said Brexit would have a positive impact on their education and career; this view was most common among non-EU students.

New research conducted by QS suggests students are concerned about the negative impact Brexit could have on their employment prospects. In a survey of prospective postgraduates from within and outside of the UK, more than half (52%) said they believed Brexit would have a detrimental effect on their future career.

This view was equally the case among UK students and those from elsewhere in the EU, with 56% of both groups selecting this option. Overall, only a quarter of survey respondents felt that Brexit was unlikely to have any impact on their career, with non-EU students most likely to agree with this statement. A further 15% said they simply did not know whether the referendum outcome would alter their professional prospects.

EU student survey - impact on career?

These findings are based on a survey of approximately 200 prospective postgraduates in March 2016, alongside focus groups and interviews. Many participating students expressed concerns that increased restrictions on travel could make it more difficult to live and work elsewhere in Europe. Samantha, a British student of Nigerian descent, pointed out that EU membership makes it easier to find jobs in other European countries: “They are very easy to come by now, but when we come out, you know…”

Italian-born Lordina, now living in the UK, spoke about how she had benefitted from making connections within Europe and being part of a diverse student community: “I want to work in an embassy, be a diplomat, or do something to do with politics. You need connections – let’s be real!” Meanwhile British student Chanelle had a very specific concern: “One of the places I wanted to work is the European Central Bank, so I guess that wouldn’t quite work out if we left the EU.”

On the other side of the picture, many European students were concerned that they would be unable to pursue career opportunities in the UK. This was the case for Spanish student Alvaro: “I wouldn’t want to start my professional career in Spain, so I would try the UK or Canada.” Overall, many surveyed students, both from the UK and other EU countries, felt that their professional options would be diminished if the UK leaves the union.

EU students less likely to study in the UK

While many are concerned about the longer-term impact on their careers, a large proportion of students are also concerned about the immediate implications of Brexit. Current and prospective international students highlighted the importance of being able to work in their chosen study destination, both during and after their studies. If this becomes more difficult, many say they would be less likely to study in the UK. This was the case for Spanish student Eric, seeking a master’s degree in the UK. Alongside concerns about fees increases in the event of Brexit – “the price will be like double, triple” – he said he would be deterred by reduced employment opportunities in the UK.

British student Conchita argued that many international students are already deterred from studying in the UK due to limited rights to work during and after their degree – warning that this could become a larger problem in future. She shared the story of a Nigerian friend who had chosen an alternative location for his master’s degree for this reason, adding: I think a lot of people do consider that, because they want to earn money and have opportunities to work after they’ve studied.”

Indeed, as the chart above shows, just under a third (32%) of surveyed EU students said they would be less likely to study in the UK if it leaves the EU. This was also the case for almost a quarter (24%) of those from outside of the EU. These are in fact much lower figures than were reported in the recent Hobsons International Student Survey, in which 82% of responding EU students and 35% of non-EU students said Brexit would make UK universities less attractive.

Although our own survey respondents were less likely to say Brexit would cause them to think again about studying in the UK, these figures remain sufficient cause for concern. On the other hand, grounds for a more optimistic picture came from those who argued that the strong reputation of UK universities would mitigate the impact of changes in fees or visa regulations. Turkish student Oyku, for instance, said: “I don’t think it would change a lot. What makes the UK stand out are the very established institutions. When I consider [the rest of] Europe I don’t see that.”

Impact on outbound mobility from UK

On the other side of the mobility road, 13% of surveyed UK students said they would be less likely to study in the EU in the event of Brexit. The likelihood of a decline in outbound mobility from the UK has not so far been a prominent feature of the debate, but should certainly be an area of concern for employers and policy makers. Many of the British students we spoke to anticipated that Brexit could limit their own opportunities to study abroad. UK student Daniel, for example, said Brexit might cause him to reconsider his intention of studying in Italy or elsewhere in the EU, “because of the impact on perhaps funding, visa requirements and my ability to be able to work whilst I’m studying.”

As fellow British student Jess pointed out, this could mean many UK students miss out on the wide range of opportunities and experiences included in the study abroad package – “You meet different people from all over the world and broaden your opinions on other people and different ways of life. I’d be sad to lose that.” Beyond the individual loss, this would also represent a major blow to the UK’s future national skillset, at a time when intercultural competencies are only set to become more important. In the context of the onset of globalization, Scottish student Ben cast Brexit as an idea entirely out of sync with the times: It’s backwards, not a positive step for the future. The future is global.”

Brexit perceived as detrimental to education

As the comments above suggest, and as the chart illustrates, many students believe Brexit could have a negative impact on their education. Equal numbers of UK and other European students (44% of both groups) felt this to be the case, while a perhaps surprisingly high number of students from outside of the EU also supported this sentiment (40%). Around 30% of all respondents felt there would be no impact on their education, while almost 20% did not know. Finally, 9% felt Brexit would have a positive impact, with this group predominantly composed of students from outside of the EU.

It is fairly easy to understand why European students fear Brexit may damage their education options – they see the potential for higher fees at UK universities, more stringent visa requirements, and difficulties gaining work experience during and after graduation. Beyond this, UK and non-UK students alike are concerned that Brexit could result in British universities becoming less internationally diverse, detracting from the multiculturalism which is perceived as a valuable part of the experience.  

UK student Jess shared: “I think it would affect other people coming to study here, which would water down some of the experience.” Scottish student Ben agreed, describing international diversity as an element today’s students have come to embrace as a norm: “I think it’s just something about our generation; I grew up with European people in my class, the Erasmus exchanges, we expect that to be the way the world works.” Diverse classrooms, international exchange programs, access to European scholarships, and the ability to learn and practice European languages were all highlighted by British students as important elements in their educational experience.

Finally, some students expressed concerns about how the performance of UK universities, and particularly their relationships with European partners, could be affected. UK student Chanelle, for instance, argued: “I know that Europe provides a lot of funding to our universities, research funding, so I think this could affect the landscape of education in the UK.” Other students expressed concerns that if British universities are unable to maintain current numbers of international enrolments, financial pressures could lead to further domestic fees hikes.

“A double-edged sword”

In an Opinum poll for The Observer earlier this year, 53% of those aged 18-34 said they would vote to remain, with 29% placing themselves in the Brexit camp and the rest undecided. Our sample group broadly reflected this spread; while most of the students we engaged with said they would prefer the UK to stay in the EU, a smaller yet significant number were in favor of leaving.

Firmly making the case for Brexit was Northern Irish student James, currently studying in the south of England and keen to return to the US for his master’s degree, after participating in an undergraduate exchange program. Pointing to Iceland and Switzerland as countries enjoying considerable success and economic resilience outside of the EU, he argued that the union itself had most to lose from a potential Brexit, while the UK would “probably be safer [outside].”

James felt it was unlikely there would be a significant change to fees or international enrolments, and was quick to dismiss concerns that changes to visa requirements could make it more difficult for international students to stay and seek work in the UK, suggesting that many would qualify for the essential skills list.

Unsurprisingly, issues relating to immigration also emerged in our conversations with students. British applicant Samantha, whose own parents migrated to the UK from Nigeria, was among those who felt that tighter controls are needed: “I’m not saying other people shouldn’t come in… but if the place is flooded, everyone will suffer.” At the same time, she acknowledged that Brexit was not the only or necessarily the best way to improve immigration regulations, and admitted that she would be sorry to lose her own right to travel freely in the EU – “It’s a double-edged sword.”

About the research

The trends explored in this article are based on research conducted at the QS World Grad School Tour in London in March 2016. A total of 196 students were surveyed, with additional insights gained through focus groups and interviews on the day. All were in the process of applying to study a master’s or PhD, and most were considering studying internationally.

This article was written by Laura Bridgestock, editor of, and Dasha Karzunina, international research liaison for the QS Intelligence Unit. The charts were created by Georgia Philippou for

This article was originally published in June 2016 . It was last updated in December 2021

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