By any definition, further and higher education are international and outward facing. UK education has always had among the most international of labour forces. Our range of students also reflects the cosmopolitan nature of our universities and colleges.
Some 15 per cent of university academic staff and 5 per cent of students are EU nationals – helping to make the UK a top destination for students from around Europe.
Research by the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) shows very clearly the positive impact within our universities of EU students: “EU undergraduates, in particular, are very high performers, and are more likely to obtain a first [class degree], less likely to be unemployed, and earn higher salaries, on average, than their UK domiciled peers.”
The fact that so many of these students stay and continue to contribute to the economy is a key strength of the UK, and this is driven by the open, international nature of our post-16 education systems.
Indeed, research and innovation are most likely to flourish in an open, global-facing society. That is why the UK has continued to attract not just thousands of students to study and academics to work here, but also international funding. In the university sector last year, EU funding supported almost 9,000 direct jobs, £836 million in economic output and a contribution of nearly £577 million to GDP.
Now all that is at risk. I say this not to play the blame game. Like the overwhelming majority of those involved in further and higher education, I voted Remain but I respect the result – that is democracy. What matters now is to ensure we do not lose something of ourselves in what plays out after the Brexit vote.
I have been approached by many worried academics since the vote. Worried about their own position as EU nationals. Worried about their colleagues. Worried about their students. Worried about EU funding upon which thousands of jobs depend.
And worried about the upsurge in hostility to migrants that has been fed and encouraged by some parts of the media.
If colleagues from the EU feel they are no longer welcome to study or work at our universities, the damage to our international academic reputation will be near fatal. The impact will not just be felt in lost research income, but through a brain drain of UK academics abroad and the loss of one of our key strengths as a producer of skilled labour.
The loss will also be felt in the local economies of dozens of towns and cities around the UK who benefit enormously from having universities and colleges at their heart. From the kebab shop to the book shop, from the local bus company to the estate agent, the international workforce and student cohort within UK further and higher education bring billions to UK businesses every year.
So what needs to be done in a post- Brexit world to protect our universities and colleges? Here are four things that my union is demanding politicians do now:
First, we need a commitment that those EU nationals who are here now can stay. Their economic contribution is enormous and any other message – such as the idea that they could be used as bargaining chips in the Brexit negotiations – will damage the UK’s reputation.
Second, we must quickly establish the potential loss of research, social fund and fee income arising from Brexit and make sure our universities have sufficient public funding to continue to compete with the world’s best.
Third, we need the government to drop its now irrelevant higher education bill and instead call an immediate nonpartisan inquiry into how we can ensure that our colleges and universities remain open to staff and students from around the world.
Fourth, we need politicians and the press to recognise their responsibilities. Blaming immigration is an old game of course, but in a climate where almost all politicians seem to be frightened of outlining its benefits, we risk damaging our society beyond repair.
I see our colleges and universities at the forefront of the post-Brexit world. In difficult times, we must continue to make the case for what they stand for: openness to new ideas, access to opportunity for all, and – of course – collaboration with each other wherever we come from.
Sally Hunt is general secretary of the University and College Union