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November 2023

Vol. 165 / No. 1448

History of art after Brexit

by Reviews Editor, Alexandra Gajewski

It is probably fair to say that the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union in 2020 as a consequence of the referendum of 2016 was not greeted with much enthusiasm by professional art historians. The subject as it has developed over the past century is by its very nature transnational in outlook. More particularly, both the UK’s enviable reputation for the quality of its museums and galleries and its leading position in the art market are attributable in great part to the excellence of academic training in the history of art at its universities. This has attracted students from all over the world, which has benefited the discipline both intellectually and financially. The decline in European students studying art history in the UK is therefore a matter of considerable concern. According to a report published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) in January this year, first-year EU-domiciled enrolments dropped by 53 per cent between the academic years 2020/21 and 2021/22.[1] The report concludes that a key reason for this is the fact that since 1st August 2021, following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, EU students no longer enjoy home fee status. Thus, instead of £9,250 they must pay the much higher overseas students’ rate, averaging £22,500, a sum that is unlikely to be easily covered by student bank loans or the current types of scholarships provided by European or UK institutions. 

For most university departments, the financial loss caused by the decline in EU student numbers has been compensated for by the fact that during the same period the enrolment of non-EU overseas students has risen by 32 per cent. However, the loss is less easily offset in art history departments, where the number of EU students is traditionally high. At the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, for example, currently 16 per cent of enrolled students are from the EU, compared to the national average of 4 per cent in all disciplines combined. As the HESA report shows, the Courtauld not only saw the number of first-year EU students fall from forty to thirty-five between 2020/21 and 2021/22, but the number of non- EU students has also decreased, from forty to thirty. In the history of art department at Birkbeck College, London, the number of EU students has dropped by half since 2020. Presumably, the students who might otherwise have enrolled in UK art history departments are turning to Ireland, the Netherlands or Scandinavia for more cost-effective Englishtaught courses. 

It is particularly worrying that these changes are occurring at a time when arts and humanities subjects are increasingly being ‘sacrificed in order to provide additional subsidy for science, technology and medicine’, as reported in an Editorial in this Magazine in June 2021.[2] The bleakness of the prospect was, however, lightened in September this year by the news that the UK would rejoin the Horizon Europe programme, the primary research funding body of the European government. Although this programme is often linked in the public mind solely to scientific research, it holds the purse-strings of the €16 billion budget of the European Research Council (ERC), which in 2019 supported fifty-four ‘social sciences and humanities’ projects at UK institutions, ranging from the Open University to Oxford University, with funding totalling €97 million. In 2020 the UK negotiated a deal to remain an active participant in Horizon Europe after Brexit. However, in reaction to the dispute over the future of the Northern Ireland Protocol the EU did not ratify the agreement and even after the adoption of the Windsor Framework in February this year, negotiations over the UK’s membership of the programme were stalling. 

Funding may be the most immediate, existential problem facing the discipline, but the benefits of student mobility and research collaboration with the EU cannot be reduced to financial issues. Long-term damage could result from an estrangement of the scholarly communities on opposite sides of the English Channel. According to the HESA report, ‘the 2020/21 academic year [saw] a dramatic 54 per cent decrease in the number of students studying abroad [. . .] when compared to 2019/20’. Since this is a trend that started well before 2019, the agency concludes that ‘other factors [than the covid-19 pandemic], such as the long-term decline in the numbers of students studying modern languages and the repercussions of the Brexit referendum [. . .] played just as big a part’. The report identifies the UK’s short-sighted decision not to join the Erasmus+ student exchange programme as an associated third country after Brexit as a key factor in this decrease. The Turing Scheme, which has replaced Erasmus+, promises funding for study abroad on a global level but has been widely criticised because it does not provide funding for international students to study in the UK. As far as travel in Europe is concerned, students and scholars face new obstacles following Brexit, since they are allowed to stay only 90 days in every 180-day period in the EU and Schengen area without a visa. This Magazine has learned that one attempt to create a partnership between a German and a UK art history department has failed, and in another case a UK department has struggled to attract EU applicants for a funded PhD. 

For now, scholarly contacts that have grown out of decades of collaboration will undoubtedly continue, on both an individual and an institutional level. Universities are aware of the necessity of keeping the channels of communication open. Many art history departments, for example that at Warwick University, are still running study abroad programmes, although they are increasingly hampered by time-consuming administrative problems, such as having to negotiate students’ free access to European museums. The British School at Rome is eligible for ERC funding and describes itself as a ‘key plank of the UK’s cultural diplomacy in [post-Brexit] Europe’. In Germany, the Forum Art History of Britain and Ireland (FAHBI), led by Ute Engel, aims to establish an interdisciplinary network among scholars in Europe and the UK and Ireland.[3] Important as such initiatives are, however, they cannot replace the need for rebuilding bridges between the UK and the EU to ensure the mobility of students and scholars and to establish new streams of funding, to both enhance the UK’s presence in Europe and make the UK a welcoming place for EU and non-EU students alike. What is needed most of all is a recognition at government level that a culturally prosperous Britain cannot afford to lose the vibrancy and diversity for which the country’s art history departments have long been admired throughout the world.

[1] HESA, Statistical bulletin 265 (19th January 2023), available at location, accessed 18th October 2023. 

[2] ‘Editorial: The purposes of art’, THE BURLINGTON MAGAZINE 163 (2021), p.491. 

[3] See, accessed 19th August 2023.