EU leaders have now agreed that sufficient progress had been made on phase one of the Brexit negotiations, meaning talks can move on to the long-term future relationship between the UK and EU. This long-awaited moment in the Brexit process brings some welcome clarity to our friends and colleagues from the EU working and studying at our universities.
Whilst the agreement still makes clear that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”, it is a meaningful step to address the significant uncertainty for universities, including the rights of EU citizens in the UK and our continued participation in EU programmes such as Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+.
Whilst progress made is certainly welcome, several questions remain outstanding for universities. The government must now work quickly in the second phase of negotiations to ensure a smooth transition and a positive outcome for higher education and research post-Brexit.
Russell Group universities are home to nearly 25,000 members of staff from other EU countries. Providing the certainty that they can continue to live and work in the UK has been the top priority for our members.
It is now confirmed that they can remain in the UK and apply for settled status through a new light-touch process. The newly appointed Conservative Party Chairman Brandon Lewis MP said in December he expects a new online process to take minutes.
It is helpful that the intended cut-off date for eligibility for settled status will be the date of Brexit, meaning no EU citizen currently resident in the UK will see retrospective changes to their immigration status.
Under the proposed arrangements for settled status, university staff will be able to continue to travel abroad for study, career development and research – a crucial part of academic life – for up to five consecutive years without seeing any changes to their residency rights.
This will all come as very welcome news to European staff at our universities who have had serious concerns over their futures since the referendum vote, and to our universities whose success depends on talented overseas staff.
Collaboration and mobility
Another hugely positive sign from the phase one agreement for our universities is that UK institutions and individuals should be able to continue participating in EU programmes until the end of the current budget period in 2020.
This includes the European research programme Horizon 2020, which enables leading academics at our institutions to partner with the brightest minds around Europe on collaborative research projects.
Participating in Horizon 2020 to the end of the programme brings a greater deal of continuity and stability, and means that universities, businesses and research organisations across the EU can continue to partner confidently with our universities.
This also brings good news for UK students wishing to take part in the Erasmus+ programme up to 2020 and for EU students hoping to spend a period of time in the UK. Giving students the opportunity to study abroad can help improve language skills, enhance cultural awareness, expose new methods of learning and working and increase independence and maturity.
The question of the Irish border has been one of the most difficult aspects of the negotiations and for our universities it is essential that north-south research collaboration and mobility of staff and students can continue. There are positive indications in the agreement which keep a strong focus on continued cooperation and upholding the Good Friday Agreement.
Transition to a post-Brexit future
As we start the New Year with the phase one agreement signed off by the European Council, attention will turn to the UK’s transition period to our new relationship with the EU.
To help our universities answer questions from students thinking of applying to courses at Russell Group universities, we would like the Government to confirm as soon as possible that fee arrangements for EU students will remain unchanged during the transition/implementation period.
It’s reassuring to know more about the arrangements for EU citizens who are or will be resident in the UK before we leave the EU. But a new post-Brexit immigration system will take time to consult on, develop and implement. Like all employers, universities must have sufficient lead time to adapt to new arrangements.
Until a new system is in place, EU citizens arriving in the transition period to work or study at our universities should be eligible for temporary status, with residency in the UK during this period counting towards the five years’ continuous residency necessary for settled status.
Beyond that, it is essential that a new immigration system makes it as easy as possible for our universities to continue to attract and recruit talented staff and students from the EU and beyond.
As the Brexit talks move into the next phase, we are urging the Government to ensure we can establish a deep and lasting relationship between the UK and the EU on science that builds on our existing research and innovation links and opens the door to UK participation in future European programmes.
Both negotiating teams have recognised the value of ensuring science and innovation collaboration can continue after Brexit. What is essential is that we avoid a cliff-edge scenario where funding and collaborative partnerships come to an abrupt halt.
No-one is understating the scale of the challenge that negotiators on both sides still face, despite the progress that we have seen. There are many areas of the talks that are likely to prove difficult. Higher education should not be one of these difficult issues.
If the political will is there, we can reach an ambitious, win-win deal on research and mobility of university staff and students. This would be the best outcome for the UK and the EU.
By Joanna Burton, Policy Analyst at Russell Group.