Horizon association won’t stop the UK’s European brain drain

Increased visa fees and health surcharges are likely to compound the Brexit effect on EU academics’ willingness to stay in the UK, say five researchers

October 3, 2023
Brain drain
Source: iStock/Cemile Bingol

The UK’s very belated association to Horizon Europe earlier this month will no doubt ease the sense that UK-based academics have been missing out on international connections and opportunities since Brexit. Nevertheless, any lessening of the incentive for European academics to leave the UK risks being counteracted by the sharp rises in the cost of visas and healthcare that are about to take effect.

Those migratory incentives are highlighted by research we recently published showing that Brexit is prompting the majority of academics in the UK to consider leaving the country.

We already know that there have been modest declines in the proportion of EU academics in the UK from the peak in 2019-20. But our research – which drew on a representative sample of academics from economics and business studies, the former of whom include the one of the highest proportions of EU nationals of any UK field – reveals that it is more productive researchers who are more likely to be considering emigrating. This suggests that Brexit might lead to a hollowing out of UK research in the long-term.

We also found that the impact of Brexit has been surprisingly broad. Neither the reputations of the institutions where participants work nor differences in seniority influenced whether they were considering emigrating. It is worth putting this into context. Prior to Brexit, the UK had, among 16 major developed economies examined by one study, the smallest proportion of foreign scientists intending to return home.

Greater levels of embeddedness minimise negative perceptions. Long-term UK residents, foreign-born academics who obtained UK citizenship prior to the Brexit referendum were less likely to have considered leaving the country because of Brexit, as were those with children. Overall, however, there is widespread discontent from mobile and less embedded individuals.

Apart from broader worries about Brexit’s effect on the country as a whole, and a reduction in levels of comfort about living in the UK, respondents to our survey were worried about reduced mobility and career opportunities outside the UK. Only 8.7 per cent thought Brexit was “the right thing to do”.

While Brexit was shown to be a pervasive factor determining emigration considerations, scholars’ nationality and citizenship also influenced their views. Unsurprisingly, EU citizens were more likely, on average, to consider emigrating because of Brexit than those who were born in the UK. However, among the latter, those who also had citizenship of another country, in Europe or beyond, were as likely as EU citizens to consider emigrating.

Some encouragement was offered by the introduction of the Global Talent visa scheme in 2020, with academics being one of the three eligible categories, but it has not had a great deal of impact. Moreover, the attractiveness of such schemes is being undermined, particular for early-career researchers, by hikes in health surcharges and visa costs. Under plans announced in July and set to help fund pay rises for public sector workers, the annual health surcharge will increase from £624 to £1,035 for main applicants and to £776 for child dependants from 4 October, while visa fees will rise by 15 per cent.

Concerns expressed in our survey about grant acquisition might be partially ameliorated by Horizon association, but the majority of respondents did not consider that international researchers from the EU were less willing to include them in major EU-funded projects or grant bids. We found that other factors, such as nationality and output productivity, were stronger influences on migratory attitudes than Horizon association.

It is clear that more needs to be done to attract and retain highly qualified scholars, particularly given the reduction, due to funding pressures, in the number of vacancies open to talented early-career researchers and the fact that more productive overseas faculty are more disaffected in the UK; in a competitive labour market, they are more difficult to replace than “lower-quality” staff.

While some institutions do provide help for the costs of visas and the health surcharge, and some even provide partial payment, this support is dwarfed by the overall costs and cuts little ice, particularly with early-careers researchers.

The Brexit-related exodus of EU staff has perhaps been hastened further by policies to promote migration of academics to several European countries. For instance, Italian universities offer generous tax incentives to encourage both Italian researchers who have been living abroad, as well as non-Italians, to move to Italian institutions. Perhaps the UK should consider doing likewise.

In the absence of further initiatives, it is unlikely that Horizon association will significantly stem the UK’s European brain drain.

James T Walker is director of research, Chris Brewster is professor of human resources management and Rita Fontinha and Washika Haak-Saheem are associate professors in human resources management, all at Henley Business School. Fabio Lamperti is a lecturer at the University of Perugia.

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Reader's comments (1)

Don't you just live the 'death rattles' of these bitter academic remainers?