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Students considering options

 by Mark Bennett
, posted on 15 Jun '16

Postgraduate Students & the EU Referendum

With only a week to go until the 23rd of June, you could be forgiven for feeling a bit of referendum fatigue.

And, whilst we hope you’re registered to vote next Thursday, we know you’re probably just as interested in another event that’s coming up this month: the opening of applications for the UK’s first ever postgraduate loans.

After all, people don’t read this blog for the awesome cake recipes (there aren’t any).

But the result of the EU referendum does matter to you as a new Masters or PhD student.

It could shape the options available during your degree. It could alter the cost of your course –at home or abroad. And it could make a difference to the funding on offer to you.

This blog explains how EU membership affects postgraduate students – and what might change if Britain votes to leave.

What would happen to postgraduate fees and funding for EU students in the UK?

You’re probably aware that EU regulations support the free movement of people between member countries. And this applies to students too.

We’ll come to study mobility a little further down the page, but the EU doesn’t just protect students’ right to study abroad in the UK. It also protects them from discrimination in terms of fees and funding.

This means that – so long as Britain is an EU member – students from other EU countries pay exactly the same fees as ‘domestic’ students when studying abroad in the UK. They’re also entitled to most of the same public funding.

‘Domestic’ vs ‘International’ fees

Public universities in the UK (that’s most of them) charge postgraduate fees at two rates:

  • Domestic or Home fees are paid by UK citizens, EU citizens and some EEA citizens*.
  • Students from most other countries pay fees at a higher international or overseas rate.

*The EEA includes all EU members, plus Norway, Liechtenstein, Iceland and - in practice - Switzerland

The difference between these levels is quite dramatic:

Masters (Postgraduate Taught) PhD (Postgraduate Research)
Domestic £5,901 £3,000 - £6,000
International £12,000 - £19,000 £10,000+

Fees for individual courses obviously vary, but costs are almost always higher for international students.

Access to funding

EU regulations also entitle EU students to the same public funding as UK students.

This is particularly important in 2016 as £10,000 postgraduate student loans are about to be introduced for Masters degrees. EU students are eligible for the loans – provided they plan to live and study in England.

Loans for PhD students are also being introduced from 2018. Their eligibility criteria isn’t fixed yet, but is likely to be similar.

PhD students from the EU already have access to PhD funding from the UK Research Councils. These award studentships on a competitive basis. EU students are eligible to apply, but are normally restricted to ‘fees only’ awards (lacking an additional stipend for living costs).


The UK leaving the EU could lead to higher fees and reduced access to funding for EU postgraduates. This might not occur immediately, but it would eventually make the UK a less affordable and attractive study abroad destination.

This is bad news if you’re an EU student considering a Masters or PhD in the UK, but British students could also lose out in less obvious ways. Postgraduate study benefits hugely from the exchange of different ideas and perspectives. This would be more limited if the diversity of student cohorts was reduced.

What would happen to fees and funding for UK students abroad?

Of course, UK students also benefit from EU membership when it comes to postgraduate fees and funding. After all, UK students are EU students too.

Leaving the EU won’t have a direct effect on fees for a Masters or PhD in the UK, but it could increase the cost of studying abroad.

Fees – or the lack thereof

Just like other EU students, you’re protected from discrimination when it comes to tuition fees. This can be a much better deal than you might realise.

Some European countries charge next to nothing for ‘domestic’ (and EU) students.

Others actually do charge nothing.

For example: if you’re a French student studying a Masters in the UK, you’ll pay an average of £5,901 per year rather than £12,000 or more. That’s good. But if you’re a UK student studying a Masters in France you’ll only pay around €256 per year.

And if you’re studying a Masters in Germany, Denmark, Poland, the Czech Republic, Finland, Sweden or Norway? You might not pay anything at all. The same is often true for PhD study in Europe.


EU membership also entitles UK students to much of the same funding as ‘domestic’ students in other member countries.

There are some have restrictions, but options include various loans and grants.


If you’re considering postgraduate study abroad in Europe then EU membership is beneficial to you. Leaving the EU would probably lead to higher fees and reduced funding opportunities, though this would vary by country.

Of course EU membership also helps students study abroad in the first place. Speaking of which. . .

What would happen to study mobility and the Erasmus+ programme?

At the moment, students are able to live, work and study across the EU, without any significant restrictions. You may have to register your presence and follow restrictions on working whilst studying, but you won’t need a visa.

And the EU doesn’t just enable you to study in another member country – it might actually help pay for it.

Studying abroad in the EU

It’s hard to say exactly what a ‘Brexit’ vote would mean for students studying between the UK and the rest of the EU.

The automatic right to free movement could cease, but new arrangements might be agreed with individual countries.

Some changes are likely though. For example, remaining abroad to work after study might be subject to new permits and restrictions. Any new visa requirements could also lengthen application times and introduce new fees and expenses.

Access to Erasmus opportunities – and funding

The Erasmus programme is an EU initiative that promotes student mobility by funding study in other participating countries.

The current version of Erasmus programme is Erasmus+. It provides:

  • Grants for study mobility. These help fund short periods of study or training abroad. Postgraduates can use these to access extra training or resources in other countries.
  • Joint Masters Degrees. These are postgraduate courses offered in collaboration between international universities. Erasmus+ helps set these up and funds some students to study on them. Joint PhD programmes are also available.
  • Masters Loans. These allow students to borrow up to €18,000 to complete a Masters degree abroad. The loans are offered by commercial banks, but backed by the Erasmus+ programme with favourable interest and repayment terms. Banks in France and Spain currently participate in the scheme.

UK students are currently eligible for all of these opportunities. Leaving the EU wouldn’t necessarily change this.

Most Erasmus funding is offered to students from 33 ‘programme countries’. These include all 28 EU members, plus the former Yugoslavia, Iceland, Norway, the Republic of Macedonia, Liechtenstein and Turkey.

The UK might be able to maintain its status as a programme country without continuing to be an EU member.


Leaving the EU wouldn’t stop UK students from studying in other member countries, but could make the process more complex and expensive.

Access to the Erasmus+ scheme would depend on the UK being allowed to remain as a non-EU programme country.

Other considerations: research funding and qualification recognition

So far we’ve focussed on topics that have a direct impact on postgraduate students, but there are a few other ways in which EU membership affects UK higher education.

Research funding

As an EU member, the UK pays money into a central EU budget. Some of that contribution goes back to support science and research in the UK.

This money doesn’t normally fund postgraduates, but it does have an indirect effect (particularly for PhD students) by supporting facilities and projects they may work within.

Campaigners for Leave argue that the UK could save money outside the EU and invest according to its own research priorities. Campaigners for Remain argue that increased UK investment in science and research would depend on government policy and wouldn’t automatically follow an EU exit.

Qualification recognition

Degrees in most European countries follow a standard ‘three cycle’ system, with undergraduate Bachelors degrees followed by postgraduate Masters and PhD degrees. This allows students to study at different levels in different countries – or to use their qualifications for work abroad.

The system is actually the result of a programme known as the Bologna Process and the formation of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA).

The EHEA isn’t organised by the EU and already includes many non-EU countries. Your UK Masters or PhD will continue to be recognised and respected whether or not Britain remains in the EU.

Conclusions: would postgraduates be better or worse off?

FindAMasters and FindAPhD have been helping students find postgraduate degrees for over fifteen years.

Our audience includes students from the UK, Europe and all around the world and our advice sections aim to help them make the right choice, whatever their origin or destination.

So we probably won’t surprise you when we say that we recognise many of the benefits that EU membership offers to all EU postgraduate students.

We believe that financial or legal barriers to study abroad are detrimental to student choice.

We also believe that they risk cutting off universities and national higher education systems from the benefits that come from the exchange of people, ideas and perspectives. These make a particularly significant contribution to learning and teaching at Masters and PhD level.

We won’t tell you how to vote on June the 23rd, but we believe that postgraduates are better off in the EU.

You can read more about the UK's upcoming EU referendum at the government's website. For more information on postgraduate study in Europe, see the guides on FindAMasters and FindAPhD.

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