With uncertainty over Britain’s future relationship with the European Union universities are facing an anxious time, fraught with challenges. In truth the prospect of the UK leaving the EU without a ‘deal’ is one of the biggest threats for our universities.
The UK’s participation in science and innovation, culture and education featured highly in the recently published political declaration setting out the framework for the future relationship between the EU and UK. This is a significant development – association with these programmes is important whether there is a Brexit deal or not.
The Horizon Europe research and innovation programme enables access to a multinational, pooled financial resource that is essential for collaboration – and incentivises it. Furthermore, it offers globally-recognised prestige, and access to networks and contacts that encourage further collaboration.
A ‘no deal’ would mean an enormous waste of priceless research. Severing vital links would make it difficult for researchers to share their ideas, data and equipment without encountering barriers. It would be an academic, cultural and scientific setback from which it would take the UK decades to recover.
The UK is proud to have some of the top universities in Europe. A large part of this success is due to the UK’s ability to recruit, with minimal barriers, some of Europe’s brightest minds.
With almost 50,000 EU staff working in UK higher education institutions, and 135,000 students from EU countries currently studying in the UK, it is important that we can reassure them about what their status will be in the event of a no deal.
The government has taken some important steps, with the Prime Minister making it clear that “even in the event of a no deal” the rights of EU citizens living in the UK “will be protected’.
The offer to EU students who start courses in 2019 that they will enjoy the same fee and loan status as UK students will also stand regardless of whether there is a deal. However, it is clear that the prospect of no deal creates significant concerns for EU citizens currently here, and those who plan to come here in the future.
From researchers in cancer and climate change to vital technicians and professional staff, those circa 50,000 staff from the EU play a critical role in contributing to campuses and to communities. Many could work anywhere in the world, but choose the UK, for our peerless global networks, reputation, quality and access to funding.
We must ensure the promises made on confirmation of settled status for EU nationals working at universities are met through a smooth, simple and timely process. We have to make sure that EU nationals feel welcome and valued in our Universities, and work hard at the political level to protect their interests.
We also have to make sure that we continue to be an attractive place to pursue careers in academia, despite Brexit.
Encouragingly, however, the Draft Withdrawal Agreement and proposed transition period would provide some much-needed certainty for EU nationals working across UK universities, who are now clearer on what their post-Brexit rights might look like.
If there is a deal, we have confirmation also that researchers in the UK will continue to be able to participate in the EU’s important research framework until 2020. And students will be able to continue in the Erasmus+ exchange programme, also until 2020.
Schemes like these are vital to UK outward mobility and are responsible for 55% of all current international exchanges involving UK students.
International experiences benefit academic performance and enable students to develop skills and build global networks necessary to be a successful global trading nation.
However, the government must clarify for universities and students as a matter of urgency how the underwrite for EU grants would work in practice, including who would administer funds and what would be required of universities in receipt of them.
It now also needs to negotiate access to the Erasmus+ programme from 2021 onwards. It is key to both maintain access to Erasmus and grow new mobility partnerships beyond Erasmus. We also need an immigration system that enables students to enter the UK with minimal barriers.
A comprehensive international education strategy is essential to grow the number of international students. This should include improvements to post-study work visas, so graduates can live and work in the UK for a defined period following graduation, to make us more competitive in the international student market.
We believe that this should be coupled with a significant and sustained international campaign to encourage international students to choose the UK as their preferred study destination.
We need an immigration system that enables students to enter the UK to study with minimal barriers and universities to recruit talented staff with minimal bureaucracy. This system is not suitable for EEA nationals post-Brexit.
It would make it much harder for UK universities to attract talented European staff and students that contribute so much to our campus communities, our research, our teaching and our economy.
Universities UK will continue to work with the UK government and officials in Brussels to secure an effective post-exit settlement for universities.
Any long-term impact will of course depend on the outcome of negotiations, and what kind of future relationship is finally agreed between the UK and the EU.
However, it is essential that we have a Brexit settlement that enables universities to deliver a successful post-Brexit UK economy and society, and one that supports our local communities.
A ‘no deal’ Brexit would have huge implications for universities in all corners of the UK, and prove enormously damaging for regional jobs, growth and skills. The issues affected would range from qualifications recognition through to procurement.
Our universities are one of the UK’s world-leading sectors. This success is in large part due to being internationally linked and welcoming to talent from across the world.
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.