I have advocated for the benefits of European Union membership for higher education ever since Brexit mutated from a private obsession on the more exotic shores of the Conservative and Labour parties into a serious probability.
This is not least because my own university, Bangor, has derived so much benefit from our membership, in respect of high-quality staff and student recruitment, enhanced links and research with prestigious institutions beyond the UK, a general positive international outlook unbounded by the white cliffs of Dover and, of course, additional funding.
However, Brexit enthusiasts are now talking up the prospect of a “no-deal” exit from the EU, and painting that as a positive opportunity rather than as a desperate last throw of the dice. More level-headed commentators point to myriad previously unforeseen problems. So for a moment, let us consider some aspects of what a no-deal exit might mean for UK higher education, specifically for Welsh universities.
Wales, and thus Welsh universities, benefits from EU structural funds. So with the help of EU money, Bangor University created the Centre for Environmental Biotechnology, Swansea University hugely expanded its Bay campus and Cardiff University built the Brain Research Imaging Centre.
The Westminster government has made noises about guaranteeing funding until 2020 in the case of a no-deal outcome. But without a deal, key structural funding streams will collapse. Government horizons are often short and anyway, the Brexit horizon is rushing towards us. Medium and longer term planning beyond 2020 will become increasingly difficult. Participation in EU-funded research and innovation schemes will grind to a halt, leaving creative and groundbreaking projects in limbo.
It’s the fragility of the Welsh economy and the greater importance of European money to Welsh institutions, though, that makes a no-deal outcome so bone-chillingly frightening. Higher education contributed about £1.4 billion to the Welsh economy in 2017. Indirectly, it provided about a further £1.4 billion through related industries. That is a significant boost, in part facilitated by EU funding grants or loans and by student mobility and research collaboration, all enabled by freedom of movement. However, in the rest of the UK, the private sector provides 45 per cent of total research funding. In Wales, that drops to about 10 per cent. Hence our vulnerability to uncertainty and changes, namely, cuts to once EU-derived public funding.
The Westminster government has made some promises, including having a common pot of returned EU monies, the “Shared Prosperity Fund”, open to all. How this will work, even the criteria for applications, remains a mystery. This is shown clearly by non-answers to parliamentary questions tabled by my Plaid Cymru colleagues and ministerial stonewalling when I raised the matter in the Brexit Select Committee.
However, ominously for the nations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, this fund is being developed by the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government – an England-only ministry. Thus, as ever, it will be a matter of, “for the UK, see England”. One thing that’s for sure though, funding won’t be coming from that elusive Brexit dividend.
EU students who study in Wales bring economic as well as academic and cultural benefits to our universities and our communities. Figures for 2016-17 show that more than 6,000 EU national students were at higher education providers in Wales, estimated to be worth £400 million to our economy. Student residents, including international students, are vital to the economies of university towns and cities. For instance, the student population at Bangor University and the city’s other educational institutions almost doubles the resident population. However, the Institute of Welsh Affairs reported a drop in international student applications of 8 per cent this year alone.
Despite the government’s warm words, after a no-deal Brexit, the principles governing freedom of movement would no longer apply. This would leave EU students studying at universities in Wales, and EU staff who contribute so much to our teaching and research, in the lurch. And the legal status of student mobility placements would be questionable at best.
It’s not just that a no-deal Brexit is looming. International staff and students alike already sense that the atmosphere has changed. Attitudes have hardened. The intolerant in our midst have been encouraged. Similarly, the more swivel-eyed of my parliamentary colleagues.
Earlier this year, I spoke to a number of ocean scientists from both sides of the Irish Sea at one of their regular meetings, this time on our side of the pond. Their hugely impressive project on a variety of aspects of the ecology of our common stretch of water is (inevitably) funded by the EU.
A colleague from Cork enlightened me thus: “The problem, you see Hywel, is that the fish don’t know where the international boundary is...bloody stupid fish.”
Only, I don’t think he really meant fish.
Hywel Williams is MP for Arfon and Plaid Cymru spokesman for Brexit. He is also a member of the Exiting the European Union Committee.