UK: Keeping The Brains Of Britain

Last Updated: 12 September 2016
Article by Vimi Grewal-Carr and Jemma Venables

This is the second in a series of posts delivered by Deloitte's innovation lead Vimi Grewal-Carr, looking in to Brexit and its impact on innovation in the UK.

The UK has a world class innovation system. Our last post highlighted the strengths and opportunities that Brexit posed for the UK innovation system. Among the strengths are idea generation and the quality of the UK's universities, which attract students from all over the globe.

Figure 1. Number of migrants by reason for coming to the UK, 2014

Source: International Passenger Survey 2014, Deloitte analysis

A recent survey suggested that Brexit could harm the UK's appeal to talented international students, with 80 per cent of EU students and 35 per cent of non-EU students stating that Brexit would make the UK a less attractive place to study.

However, the majority of international students coming to the UK are from outside the EU, and it is not yet clear how much of the uncertainty around Brexit will be reflected in students' final decisions about whether they will study in the UK.

Despite the atmosphere of uncertainty, there are several steps that the UK government, universities and business can take to be proactive and continue to promote the UK as a world-leading study destination:

  1. Change the narrative of high-skilled immigration

Domestically, there appears to have been growing resentment towards immigration, with a popular perception that the rules on free movement of people within the EU places an increased burden on existing UK citizens.

However, in reality the pattern of highly skilled immigration is quite different. It is generally short-term, highly dynamic and mobile, and is often referred to as 'brain circulation'.

Immigration policy should therefore be flexible enough to accommodate such 'brain circulation', since the ease of getting a visa is an important consideration for foreign talent.

  1. Continue to attract foreign students

The UK attracts the second highest number of foreign students in the world, behind the US, and more than France and Germany combined. China is by far the UK's largest market, attracting almost 90,000 students a year, approximately four times the number of students coming from the next largest country of origin, India.

The primary reason that foreign students cite for choosing the UK to study is the quality of education. The UK also has a natural advantage in other key influencers that exiting the EU is unlikely to change, such as culture and language.


Post-Brexit immigration policy and university marketing campaigns could be targeted on countries like China and India as well as within the EU to reassure prospective students that the UK is still a world-class, welcoming place to study.

  1. Raise the global profile of cities other than London in the UK

Short-term migrants, both students and workers, are most attracted to London, followed by the South East, which has about half the volume of the UK's capital city. This is unsurprising since they are also the regions with the highest number of highly skilled jobs in the UK, and therefore most likely to attract 'brain circulation'.

Figure 2. Short term migrants registering for study or employment by region, 2014

Source: International Passenger Survey 2014, Deloitte analysis

Other regions of the UK do not have the same profile or draw of London, despite having world-class universities (such as the University of Manchester, Oxford and Cambridge) of their own.

Since competition for talent is becoming global, rather than national, more could be done to raise the profile of world-class UK universities outside London, thereby enticing global talent to other regions of the UK.

  1. Create a UK alumni network

The UK has a mobile academic talent pool and has an excellent record of attracting talent from overseas and making the most of insight and expertise brought home by domestic academics from overseas placements. The value of this mobility is diversity and the new ideas and innovation it stimulates through the "networks, linkages, bridges and ties that bring know-how, experience and opportunity together".

Universities and business should work hard to consolidate these soft relationships to ensure that they are strong enough to continue post Brexit. A group with oversight and access to the UK universities, such as the Committee of University Chairs, could establish a UK alumni network to cement the international ties that contribute so heavily to UK innovation.


The UK's decision to leave the EU has shaken confidence in its hard-won status as an attractive destination for foreign students, particularly among those from the EU. Since we know what matters to foreign students through regular surveys, it is possible to be more proactive in policy-making and marketing to reassure both existing students and those that are likely to choose to study here in the future that is the UK is the right destination for them. The UK government and universities can do this by:

  • changing the language and rhetoric around immigration to reflect the benefits of brain circulation
  • designing an academic visa that welcomes foreign talent and accommodates employment during their period of study
  • raising the profile of London and non-London universities abroad, offering additional scholarships to attract gifted applicants
  • consolidating existing soft relationships to ensure they endure Brexit

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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