Deal or no deal? Britain’s universities face up to their own Brexit dilemmas

Mike Finn speaks to university leaders and trade unionists to find out what they make of the prime minister’s Brexit deal

November 20, 2018
Man confronted by ladders

The waiting is over – a Brexit deal has been agreed at the technical level. While its fate hinges on the outcome of the political maelstrom currently engulfing the prime minister and the Conservative party, the specific elements addressing higher education have prompted mixed reactions from the sector.

With the UK’s universities dependent on European research links for much of their funding and collaboration, and with the centrality of the Erasmus+ programme to student exchange, the explicit expectation that Britain would continue to participate in the union’s education, science and innovation programmes, included in the outline document on the future relationship was enough to merit a sigh of relief from sector leaders. 

Still, key elements remain unclear – the question of funding for European Union students in the UK being a critical one. The current position – that they can access the student finance system and fees at the domestic student rate until the transition period ends in 2020 – remains unchanged. 

But visions of a hard Brexit, represented as catastrophic in its implications for the UK’s HE sector, had dominated discussions among vice-chancellors in recent weeks. As such, the statement on access to programmes received a cautious welcome from the chief executive of Universities UK.

For Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, however, the issue is bigger than just the money. “Although the funding that UK institutions get from Horizon 2020 is important, what is more important are the research networks facilitated by that programme,” Smith said. His reflections highlight the elephant in the room – with freedom of movement on the way out, how effective can programme access alone be in maintaining the level of collaboration that the UK currently enjoys with EU partners? 

The University and College Union has similar concerns about British higher education in a post-Brexit world. Speaking with me after the document was released, the union’s head of policy, Matt Waddup, argued that there was a need for “an approach which moves beyond hostile environment towards making the UK a welcoming place for potential staff to study, work and live. Based on what we have so far, we are not convinced.” 

The hostile environment is bound up with the hopes and fears of EU27 staff working in UK universities. Although the withdrawal agreement deals in its first section with citizen’s rights, EU citizens working in UK universities have been alienated by the changing public climate during the Brexit process.  

In the eyes of Tanja Bueltmann, a prominent spokesperson for EU staff, the deal is a disaster. In an article published after the deal was released, she claims that the UK’s implementation of the citizen’s rights provisions raises the prospect of a “new Windrush generation” of “EU citizens…with no tangible proof of rights that is easy to show”. For Bueltmann, EU27 staff have been sold out by both sides.

The UCU, meanwhile, maintains its call for a second referendum, which 89 per cent of its voting  membership backed in a recent consultation

Vicky Blake, president of the Leeds University branch and a member of the union’s governing national executive committee, noted the “scant useful detail on the long-term impact of Brexit on education and research”. She too sees the deal as unlikely to remedy the damage done to the public standing of British higher education globally. 

“The hostile environment makes a mockery of the positioning of UK universities as international sites of cutting edge research because talented academics from the EU and elsewhere are made to feel increasingly unwelcome in a UK that may decide to throw them out even after many years of contributing to research and the economy.”

Then again, there are dangers in rejecting the deal, said Smith. “[It is] mission critical that the UK stays in the Horizon programme and in the European research space, and a UK-EU deal is the best way of achieving this in a timely fashion. I would prefer that we were not leaving the EU and I would like a second referendum but the very worst outcome would be no-deal.”

Members of British universities – staff and students – were among the fervently pro-European sections of society in 2016. They remain so. But with European negotiators clear that the deal on offer is the best Brexit that can be, staff and leaders alike need to decide whether this is a deal that they can live with – or whether they need to intervene now in a final attempt to prevent Brexit altogether.

Mike Finn is senior lecturer in history at the University of Exeter and the author of British Universities in the Brexit Moment.

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