Chair's Blog: On your marks, get set - Brexit

24 Oct 2016

Brexit means Brexit. There will be no reversal of the decision or repeat of the referendum; we are all Leavers now.

However, higher education is one sector where the relationship with the EU brings enormous benefit to the UK. Irrespective of our individual views, HE therefore has an obligation to positively engage with the UK Government to cushion the potential blow associated with leaving the EU and to ensure we don’t cross the finish line as losers when the two-year negotiating period is over.

As MillionPlus demonstrated in a new policy briefing Trade in higher education services and research – negotiating Brexit, the UK’s membership of the EU is worth at least £6bn each year to the UK economy and investment from European structural funding programmes has a massive positive impact around the UK. The high quality and reputation of UK universities is also owed to the high calibre of staff working in those universities - in many cases, over 15% of the staff base in some vital disciplines is from EU countries.

Each year 125,000 students come from EU countries to study here, contributing to economies up and down the country and supporting the creation of at least 35,000 jobs.

Whilst the government risks tumbling over a self-created hurdle with its proposals for international students, it has at least not compounded the problem by continuing to create uncertainty about the future of EU students applying to study in the UK. The guarantee of access to loans for EU students in England and the funding for students in Scotland in 2017-18, called for in Negotiating Brexit, is hugely welcome. This same assurance must now be delivered for EU students seeking to enter universities in the UK at least up to the 2019-2020 admissions year to help mitigate the risks around a lengthy and complex negotiating period.

However, there is still a cloud of uncertainty surrounding our exit of the EU. The ability of UK universities to trade with EU countries in HE services and research is fundamental to a successful economy. Securing the future of all these relationships – not solely those related to research – must be central to the negotiations to exit the European Union.

As such, Negotiating Brexit makes several recommendations:

  • A temporary residency scheme for EU students post-Brexit that allows them to live and study in the UK with minimal restrictions, on the proviso that the same reciprocal arrangements apply to UK students who are accepted to study at universities and other institutions in EU states
  • The right to remain without any visa conditions to be given to EU staff working in UK universities at the point at which the UK leaves the EU
  • A work permit scheme offering UK universities the opportunity to recruit talented staff from EU countries to work in the UK with minimal restrictions
  • The UK government to guarantee that the total combined value of research funding from UK and EU sources allocated to UK universities at the point of leaving the EU will be at least maintained in real terms for a transitional period of 5 years
  • Future access by UK universities to EU funding programmes like Horizon 2020, European Structural and Investment Funds and participation in Erasmus student and staff mobility programmes to be included in Brexit negotiations
  • All governments and administrations in the UK should confirm as a matter of urgency that they will continue to fund EU students on the same basis as their home students at least until 2020 and that the respective funding councils should, as a minimum, maintain funding for teaching and associated student numbers to their universities for a transitional period of five years.

With negotiations proper still some months away, the finish line remains in the hazy distance. In the interim the government should be drawing on the knowledge, experience and expertise available to ensure that its negotiating position is well-founded and does the least damage possible to our important trading relationships and our international standing whilst at the same time looking at the new opportunities these changes will bring. As a number commentators have suggested, Britain voted to leave but not to make itself poorer.

Professor Dave Phoenix
Chair, MillionPlus and Vice-Chancellor, London South Bank University

Follow on Twitter: @Dave_PhoenixVC