I am proud to represent a constituency that is home to parts of two world-class higher education institutions: the University of Oxford and Oxford Brookes University. Between them, they educate tens of thousands of students each year and contribute to a vibrant and diverse culture that, in my view, makes this one of the best parts of the world – not just the UK – in which to live.
Oxford boasts the largest volume of world-leading research in the country. But even a university as well-resourced as Oxford is not immune to the impact that Brexit will have (and is already having) on higher education, thanks to the government’s repeated failure to address the concerns of this sector. Hence why Oxford actively stated its pro-Remain stance during the referendum and subsequently appointed a head of Brexit strategy to manage the fallout.
One of the university’s biggest worries is about the effect that Brexit will have on European Union staff, and a Freedom of Information request recently carried out by the Liberal Democrats shows that it is right to be concerned. We found that almost 2,350 academics from non-UK European countries have resigned from posts at UK universities in the past year. That number is nearly 20 per cent higher than that of two years ago, before the referendum.
Oxford has so far managed to replace those it has lost, but this is before Brexit has even happened, and the direction of travel is concerning.
The UK has been incredibly lucky to welcome EU academics to our universities – they make up 15 per cent of all teaching and research staff. This includes many in subjects such as maths, computing and engineering, where we face serious skills deficits; and many more in medicine and nursing at a time when our NHS has an unprecedented staffing crisis.
They are also valued members of our communities, often getting involved in much more than just their jobs. We cannot overstate the size and impact of the vacuum that will be left if the government does not urgently give the higher education sector the assurances it needs.
The lack of clarity over the right to remain for EU staff is only one of the drivers of the academic “Brexodus”. For a start, the uncertainty about the UK’s position is seriously harming the career prospects of the staff involved in EU-funded projects. I hear time and again that even if research projects are awarded grants, there is a clear preference for them to be led by academics in EU countries above those based in the UK. That is if the projects manage to win approval at all.
Vice-chancellors have already seen a fall in the amount of European research funding that we are receiving, with reports last month that “millions of pounds [have been] lost as a result of a fall overall in Britain’s share of the flagship Horizon 2020 project”. It beggars belief that the government would not prioritise our ongoing participation in this project in its negotiations with Brussels.
Over the next two years, Horizon 2020 will fund billions of pounds’ worth of work into issues as important as how we build a low-carbon future and how we boost the effectiveness of methods to fight international crime. I can only believe that we will be a weaker country if we shut ourselves off from participating in vital work such as this.
Is it any wonder that academics at the very forefront of their fields, who want to work on the biggest and most ambitious projects, will leave the UK if these opportunities are no longer offered at our universities?
We are lucky to have some of the best universities in the world here in the UK, but they have thrived precisely because they have been able to attract the brightest and the best from across the world. We cannot take for granted that this will always be the case.
Brexit puts our higher education sector at risk, and there is a real danger that the government will come back from Brussels with a bad deal that makes the current problems look like child’s play.
Layla Moran is the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for education, science and young people.