Article 50 day has arrived. It is a day for portentous photographs of Theresa May signing the letter that will begin the UK’s departure from the European Union. Britain’s first prime minister, Robert Walpole, observes the scene from a portrait and looks very serious indeed in his wig. Ms May is surrounded by a huge marble fireplace and leather-backed chairs, which also look very serious indeed.
While the image is an attempt to convey comforting sobriety, solidity and substance at this historic moment, the reality is that uncertainty looms large (even bigger than that marble fireplace) in just about every element of the UK’s future relationship with Europe. That certainly applies to the future that the UK’s universities can expect to emerge from the Brexit talks.
The anodyne statements put out today by sector bodies fail to set out an agenda that universities will press the government to secure in Brexit talks.
Universities UK’s statement opens with the observation: “Our future relationship with the EU has clear implications for universities in the UK.” Which is true, but not really expressing the magnitude of the situation, given the facts that UUK goes on to note about 17 per cent of UK academic staff being EU nationals, 125,000 EU students being in this country and the UK being “a major beneficiary of the EU's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme and networks”.
To put it another way on EU research, the UK gains: a) £1.2 billion a year research funding from the EU; b) access for its researchers to hugely prestigious European Research Council grants; and c) access to international research resources that it would not otherwise be able to access, like the collection of unused cells held in Sweden from 500,000 cervical smear tests that is essential to an EU-funded project, led by University College London researchers, to develop a test predicting women’s risks of developing four types of cancer.
UUK does call for the UK to “continue to access valuable and collaborative European research networks”. But is that the same as calling for the government to ensure that the UK takes part in future EU framework programmes for research as an associated country?
Contrast UUK’s statement with the University of Oxford, which says more clearly on its website that its “desired outcome from the Brexit negotiations” includes the ability to “participate in future EU framework programmes and conduct world-class collaborative research with EU colleagues” and to “host European Research Council grants”.
And although UUK says that the government “must ensure that the UK remains welcoming to EU students and staff”, there is no word on how that would be best achieved. UUK does not appear to be pushing the government to seek a free movement deal with the EU for students and academics – an idea some back – instead lobbying for a more liberal immigration regime for non-EU students and staff that would also apply to those coming from the Continent post-Brexit.
But looking at it from another perspective, the government doesn’t seem to know itself what it wants the entire future immigration regime for those coming from Europe to look like, so perhaps it is futile for universities to make demands at this stage.
Higher education is a tiny part of a highly complex negotiation and, given that these issues around research and academic mobility will have little traction with voters, the government may feel that it can safely ignore the concerns of universities, and there is little hope of changing that. Openness and internationalism do not appear to be flavour of the month with voters or the government.
There are also growing suggestions that the UK government may be alarmed by the prospect of having a continued relationship with the European Court of Justice and other Europe-wide regulators, if it were to enter into EU research programmes as an associated country.
That illustrates the way that universities’ concerns might be submerged within much bigger political issues in the Brexit talks.
All the same, it would probably be a positive development if the sector’s vision for what it wants to emerge from the Brexit talks had a stronger flavour than vanilla.