Since the vote for Brexit last June, there has been endless speculation about what impact leaving the European Union will have on our universities.
Concerns have been raised about the effect of Brexit on staffing, student recruitment and research funding; but while the shape of the UK’s future relationship with the EU remains vague, it has been difficult to assess the degree to which these issues are likely to become real problems for our institutions.
However, a new survey of more than 1,000 lecturers and professors by YouGov for the University and College Union has revealed that the impact of the vote is already being felt acutely in universities, months before Article 50 is even triggered.
In a sector known for being outward-looking and collaborative, it is perhaps little surprise that the vast majority of survey respondents (90 per cent) thought that Brexit would have a negative overall impact on the sector.
Much more striking is the extent to which the vote appears to have influenced people’s desire to stay and work in the UK higher education sector. When asked if the vote for Brexit made people more or less likely to consider leaving UK higher education to continue their career, two-fifths of all respondents said that they were now more likely to do so. That figure rose to more than three-quarters (76 per cent) among non-UK EU nationals.
This is a real worry for our universities, which rely on EU nationals to make up 15 per cent of the UK academic workforce, and one-fifth of academic staff at Russell Group institutions. It’s not just a knee-jerk reaction – this survey was conducted a full six months after the vote in June.
And it’s not just idle talk. Nearly a third (29 per cent) of those surveyed said that they had already seen evidence of academics leaving UK higher education to pursue a career elsewhere, while two-thirds (66 per cent) said that they know of academics considering leaving following the vote. The evidence is mounting that many EU nationals now have little desire to stay and participate in our education system.
If the government wants to avoid a Brexit brain drain and plug the significant hole that departing EU nationals would leave in the country’s academic workforce, it must guarantee that all EU citizens currently working and studying in UK universities will be welcome to stay indefinitely.
It must also robustly challenge the damaging rhetoric on immigration that is making talented academics feel unwelcome in our country. Two-fifths of survey respondents (39 per cent) said that they had seen evidence of students and staff complaining of racism and discrimination directly linked to the Brexit vote, and this cannot be tolerated at a national or institutional level.
The survey suggests that the other big concern highlighted by universities – the potential loss of significant financial and reputational benefits gained from involvement in European research partnerships – is also well founded. More than two-fifths (44 per cent) of those surveyed reported that they knew of academics who have lost access to EU research partnerships and funding.
When this issue was raised shortly after the referendum, universities minister Jo Johnson said that he had not been shown evidence that proved that this was happening “in concrete terms”. This finding would suggest that the problem is concrete indeed and is having a real and immediate impact in our institutions.
Overall, then, the survey is a sobering indication that staff are already feeling the fallout from Brexit, and the situation for many academics seems much less certain than this time last year. That’s why the UCU has argued for a halt to the contentious Higher Education and Research Bill, which returns to the House of Lords today.
While the UK thrashes out its position on EU relations, our globally renowned universities need stability, not upheaval. Otherwise, many more staff may be inclined to think that UK higher education is no longer for them.
Sally Hunt is general secretary of the University and College Union.