Higher education is one of the sectors of the British economy that will be most clearly and negatively affected by Theresa May’s blind pursuit of a hard Brexit. Indeed, Alistair Fitt, vice-chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, has warned that a hard Brexit could be ‘the biggest disaster for the university sector in many years’. And in evidence given to the House of Commons Committee on the likely impact of Brexit on higher education, a wide variety of people working within the sector have expressed their deep concerns about the consequences of Brexit for research, funding and staff, as well as UK, EU and international students.
Of course these warnings have and will continue to be shouted down as ‘scaremongering’ by the Brexit zealots, but let’s take a brief look at the facts to see what’s really at stake.The university sector contributes £73 billion annually to the British economy, which amounts to 2.8% of GDP; it creates 757,000 jobs, which amounts to 2.7% of the labour market; and it brings £10.7bn in export earnings. In terms of research funding, the UK receives the fourth largest share of EU budget in this area, with, for example, €8.8 billion out of a total of €107 billion expenditure coming our way between 2007 and 2013.
The potential implications of the government’s hard Brexit stance on research funding alone, which provides £1bn a year boost to the UK’s GDP, are enormous. Theresa May’s vague and platitudinous utterances on this suggest that the irony of ‘having your cake and eating it’ is completely lost on her. On the one hand, she does not want to retain ‘bits’ of our membership of the EU, while on the other would still like the EU27 to give the UK some post-Brexit access to the lucrative EU research programmes from which we benefit. Add to this Boris Johnson’s recent suggestion that it would be ‘perfectly OK’ to leave the EU without a deal, and the idea that we could maintain access to EU research programmes becomes a very unfunny joke.
The UK will need some kind of associate country status to have access to framework programme 9, which is the main EU funding stream for research and innovation that will come after the current one, Horizon 2020, finishes. The government has made a commitment to guarantee research funding until 2020, but where will the money come from if the UK cuts itself off from this programme due to an uncompromising hard Brexit stance or if it leaves with no deal?
With this kind of fantastical thinking at the top of the UK government, there is little doubt that hard Brexit jeopardises the significant contribution that the higher education sector makes to the British economy, and threatens to cut the UK off the unique staff, student, research and funding networks facilitated by our EU membership. In the long term, this will undermine the UK’s position as a global leader in the provision of high-quality tertiary education.
So much for Theresa May’s ‘Global Britain’ then.
In addition to the significant economic risks, there are the more tangible human costs. For the 14% of UK academic staff from other EU nations who work and pay their taxes in the UK, the refusal of Theresa May’s government to guarantee their right to remain has been hugely unsettling. As well as the obvious personal anxieties that this refusal is causing, it is doing untold reputational damage to the higher education sector as staff are leaving or thinking about leaving because there is so much uncertainty about their status. This in turn will have a direct and detrimental impact on the teaching and research capabilities of UK universities, in terms of the breadth of expert knowledge (yes, experts, Mr Gove), the range of courses they can offer and in their ability to attract funding.
The damaging rhetoric of the government on this issue is also affecting EU students, who are now thinking twice about coming to a country whose government has such a negative attitude towards them. Already there has been an average 7% drop in the number of applications from EU students across the sector this academic year, and analysis by Higher Education Policy Institute has shown that the 125,000 EU students at British universities could halve post-Brexit. By way of illustrating the economic impact of this, EU students generated more than £2.27bn for the UK economy and helped create 19,000 jobs in 2012-13 alone.
Access to students loans is another issue for EU students. The government has provided assurances on access for EU students who apply for courses for the 2017-18 academic year, but Universities UK, which represents university principals, has called for the same assurances for those applying for courses starting in 2018–19. And what about the Erasmus + programme, which, for instance, supported 86,585 students and 2,775 projects to the value of €354m between 2014 and 2016. Again, universities want to know if they will have continued access to this programme.
In addition, there will inevitably be the issue of permits and visas for EU staff, researchers and students. Will EU students be classed as international students post-Brexit and thus included in the net migration figures that the government has so disingenuously recommitted to reducing ‘to the tens of thousands’. In all this, it should be noted that the majority of British people don’t see international students as immigrants and welcome the benefits they bring to country. Moreover, no less than six parliamentary committees have called on the government to take international students out of net migration figures and put in place a workable immigration system that is fair and does not use them as a political football. To compound all this, the UK will have to compete with other English-speaking countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada, who are already overtaking the UK in attracting international students.
In the end, it is clear that the ‘Global Britain’ (or is it ‘Empire 2.0’?) dreams of the Brexiteers are unsustainable when measured against the reality of what either a hard Brexit, or leaving with no deal, would actually mean for the UK’s higher education sector. The best outcome would be a sector-specific deal that guarantees free movement of researchers, students, and academics in much the same way as occurs at present. But, as such status quo solutions are also the best in a number of other fields, they inevitably pose the question of whether we shouldn’t reconsider Brexit entirely.