Forget the money – think of the people we could lose if Brexit is mismanaged

European staff have helped make the UK higher education system a world leader, says Sarah Stevens, and we need to ensure that they continue to do so

November 11, 2017
European Union (EU) flags flying
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The most pressing challenge that Brexit presents the higher education sector is not about money. It is about people. Universities are making the case with the government to clarify the rights of our existing European Union workers as a matter of urgency. But we need to look to the future, too.

The risks that we face have been well documented, but there are opportunities as well. As we leave the EU, going back to first principles on immigration rules gives us a chance to ensure that the value of skilled overseas staff is recognised fully. If we can get the people dimension right for our universities, this could help to strengthen international links in the long term.

Last year, there were almost 25,000 EU nationals working at Russell Group universities, with the majority of these staff in academic, technical or senior administrative roles. These individuals are undertaking world-leading research, educating future generations and building collaborative scientific networks.

The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) is consulting on what the post-Brexit immigration regime for EU nationals should look like. This is a valuable opportunity for all sectors to consider the benefits that EU nationals bring to the UK and think about how these can be retained to deliver a good Brexit outcome in the interests of all UK citizens.

In the Russell Group’s submission to the MAC, we set out a series of principles that need to be at the heart of the new system. These boil down to a single underlying value: we need a predictable and flexible system that offers long-term migration with low-burden routes to residency for overseas nationals working in the UK.

This is of particular importance for higher education and other sectors that rely on people with specialist knowledge. Prioritising PhD-level and other highly trained positions with a light-touch visa route would be one way to help avoid skills gaps opening up as we leave the EU and to ensure that our universities can continue to compete internationally for the best talent.

We also need to ensure that the new system continues to facilitate the short-term migration that is so vital for many research projects, and which also help bring new perspectives to teaching, too. 

Often, academics will undertake short placements or visits of less than a year that are hugely important for knowledge exchange and research collaborations. It is this person-to-person interaction between academics from different cultures that helps to build collaborative relationships and sparks new ideas and discoveries.

Current visa routes for short-term visits are restrictive and likely to place a disproportionate burden on academics who might be coming here for only a day or two to attend a conference or meet with a collaboration partner. A new system must be simple and proportionate, allowing prospective employees and UK employers to navigate the system confidently.

Crucial to a successful transition to the new regime will be a long lead-in period to allow UK institutions to plan and introduce any new recruitment systems that might be required. The same will be true for businesses operating in the private sector. The government will need to ensure that employers receive clear guidance during this period.

If we lose out on top academics and other skilled staff, the impact on research and teaching at universities across the country could be significant.

Every university will have its own examples of EU nationals doing cutting-edge research. At the University of Glasgow, for example, Manuel Salmerón-Sánchez is working with charities including Cancer Research UK to develop bone replacement for victims of landmines. At Imperial College London, a team led by Zoltan Takats has developed a scalpel that tells surgeons immediately whether the tissue they are cutting is cancerous or not.

EU academics are also making a significant contribution to the delivery of a highly skilled STEM workforce: at Russell Group universities, they represent 31 per cent of academic staff in mathematics; 28 per cent in chemical engineering; and 27 per cent in physics at our universities. In particular, they play a critical role in supporting young people to develop advanced foreign language skills, which is one of the top skills gaps typically identified by business. Some 37 per cent of our modern foreign language academics are from other EU countries.

Put simply, European staff have helped to make the UK higher education system a world leader. An immigration system that facilitates mobility between the UK and the EU will enable the UK’s universities to access the talent and build the collaborations that are essential for driving innovation, improving national productivity and maintaining the UK’s competitive advantage in research and education.

Getting this right will increase the likelihood that we will keep valued colleagues who are already in the UK. It will also make it easier to continue to recruit talented EU and other international staff to teach students and continue to deliver world-leading research in years to come, helping to ensure that UK universities can play their part in delivering a successful industrial strategy to the benefit of all UK citizens.

Sarah Stevens is head of policy for the Russell Group.

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