In summer 2016, students defected from the LL.M. in EU Commercial Law at Essex University en masse.
"[The program] was basically eliminated," says Marios Koutsias, lecturer in EU Commercial Law and commercial post-graduate training director at the University of Essex. "Students left it and moved to the commercial, business and trade law LL.M., for example."
This blow to Essex University's EU Commercial Law concentration is just one of the myriad ways that the June 2016 vote for the UK to leave the EU is reverberating through British and European life. It's impossible to tell how Brexit will pan out, but when it comes to LL.M. programs on both sides of the Channel, officials see the vote shaking things up at universities and law programs.
One major effect, they say, stems from the potential for restricted movement between the UK and the EU, which could stop professors from immigrating from Europe to the UK and vice versa and could have a chilling effect on cross-university collaboration.
"It does have very profound implications for our work. Many of our colleagues are from Britain. They feel insecure about what the future holds," says Han Somsen, vice dean of Tilburg Law School in the Netherlands.
"The UK has been disproportionately effective in attracting research funds. In the Netherlands, we find it very easy to work together with UK colleagues. In terms of language, it's easy to work with them. It's very unsure whether the UK universities will continue to compete and be present in this European research area, and that will mean that we need to find new partners. That's difficult. That's going to be a difficult transition for us."
Koutsias says that the end of collaboration could hurt UK schools in another way: financially.
"We get a lot of funding for research. All this will be cut, obviously, but it all depends on what kind of agreement they have," says Koutsias. "Everything everyone says at the moment is really invalid, because no one knows what the agreement will look like."
Officials in the UK and the EU also point out that a Brexit could stop students from moving around between the regions. Fee structures in the EU typically give discounted rates to EU students from other countries within the union. For example, Leiden University in the Netherlands charges just under 2,000 euros for the 2016 to 2017 school year for EU students, but the same degree costs more than 16,000 euros for students from outside the union. In the UK, at King's College London, an LL.M. costs 15,000 pounds for EU students, while it costs 22,800 pounds for overseas students. If Brexit separates the EU and the UK, students who don't want to pay a higher price could stop crossing the Channel for their educations.
Somsen points out that this could actually be good news for European schools.
"It's a public secret that British universities are the best in Europe. Our students like to go to the UK, and under the current regulation it's very easy for them to do so. That might change," says Somsen.
If LL.M. programs in the UK suddenly become more expensive for students from other European countries, Somsen says, they’ll start looking closer to home for better values.
Besides losing students and professors thanks to increased fees and movement restrictions, UK schools are also concerned about something less tangible affecting their enrollment: their image. The "leave" vote for Brexit is often presented in the media as a sign that the UK is not welcoming to foreigners, which could disincentivize non-British students from seeking a degree from the UK.
"The image of the UK in Europe is not the best in the moment," says Koutsias. "The issue of xenophobia and everything may affect a lot of people."
Curriculum changes for European Law LL.M.s
Many LL.M. programs in the EU and UK offer concentrations in topics related to European law. King's College London and Queen Mary University of London offer European Law LL.M.s, while Nottingham Trent University offers a European and Insolvency Law LL.M. Meanwhile, schools like Leiden and Tilburg offer LL.M.s that examine European law and integration.
But the split precipitated by the Brexit could cause these schools to rethink their curricula. In Essex's case, so many students defected from its EU commercial law program because the Brexit vote opened up the possibility that a degree from the program may soon be useless.
"Professionally speaking, our students didn't know if in one year this would be a useful degree or not, because nobody knows what kind of thing will be applicable in the UK," says Koutsias. "For EU students, it looks silly to have an EU degree from a non-EU country. It doesn't make much sense to study anything European in the UK because nobody knows its status in the future."
Koutsias says that Essex is retooling its curriculum to expand its international courses, banking on the fact that the UK will hopefully stay attractive for students from outside Europe.
"The UK will still be attractive because the only other language [many students from outside Europe] speak is English," says Koutsias. He says he thinks that Chinese students, for example, will still choose the UK to study subjects such as maritime law and international trade law.
Somsen says that at first, he thought that his school wouldn't alter its curriculum to reflect the changes wrought by Brexit. He says that pre-Brexit, skepticism about European integration had resulted in lower numbers of students pursuing EU law-related courses anyway. In addition, he says that his course never devoted much time to countries such as Switzerland, Norway, or Iceland, other nations that are geographically part of Europe but declined to sign onto the EU treaty--so at first, he thought that Brexit wouldn't play a large role in changing his curriculum.
But he says his conversation with LLM GUIDE made him re-think his opinion on curriculum changes.
"It is not inconceivable that we'll have to start teaching a different sort of EU law. The softer the Brexit, the more we will have to pay attention to the Brexit situation. The harder the Brexit, the more it's like a divorce and we won't talk about them," Somsen says.
Of course, all officials stress that the ultimate outcome from Brexit is still incredibly uncertain, since no one knows how the EU's and UK's final negotiations will turn out.
"Everything everyone says at the moment is really invalid, because no one knows what the agreement will look like," says Koutsias. "There's a huge sense of uncertainty. Nobody knows what's going to happen in the long, short or medium term. Basically life goes on."