To our talented European colleagues: we want you to stay post-Brexit

We must make it clearer to UK-based European scholars that the UK higher education sector wishes to remain open, says Sir Keith Burnett

March 20, 2017
Pro-EU protester
Source: Getty

I’m giving a talk this week at Universities UK’s International Higher Education Forum about the international nature of university life. Conference presentations on international students can, of course, quickly become a discussion primarily about recruitment and the competitive marketing of international education.

I’m certainly not going to knock that. In fact, the very many people whose jobs rely on the presence of international students both inside and outside universities quite rightly want UK education to set out our global offer in the most effective way that we can.

I hope that we have done a reasonable job in explaining to our own country the financial benefits of international students to communities and the businesses within them. The call to remove international students from migration figures is supported by all three of the UK’s national business organisations, concerned in part by recent statistics showing 41,000 fewer overseas students coming to the UK this year alone.

I was at a recent debate on The Future of Britain, hosted by the Financial Times, and even the CEO of the Vote Leave campaign quoted the result of a poll that showed that many more people thought students were not immigrants than those who thought we should leave the European Union. He said that his argument was not with the students Britain would need if we are to be “open to the world”. 

But we still hear that the government is holding to the line that students are immigrants. Officials say that they do not wish to appear to be fiddling the statistics – all I can say is that I hope the people made unemployed around the country if international student numbers significantly decline will appreciate the “principled stance” they are taking.

The reality is that the UK now has to work a lot harder to attract overseas students, especially as universities in Asia climb the league tables and see themselves as the new bastions of openness. Our struggle is also self-inflicted, as potential students from India react to lost opportunities for post-study work and worry about xenophobia.  


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Of course, we focus on our strengths and the impact of currency changes on value for money. But the fact remains that UK universities overseas hear admiration for the quality of our education mingled with nagging questions: Will my child be welcome? Will he or she be safe? Working out how best to promote UK education in these troubled times is a damn serious matter. Many people’s livelihoods are at stake at universities of all kinds.

Sadly, there is the other critical aspect of being international: the concerns of our academic staff who so often come to us from around Europe and the world. The debates in the Lords, who voted by majority of 102 to guarantee rights of EU nationals in UK after Brexit, said it all. The subsequent slap-down of this call in the House of Commons is, in my mind, the greatest condemnation of our democracy in recent years.

Indeed, the biggest effect of the Brexit aftermath on higher education is not only the potential impact on EU research funds, but also a loss of highly trained international staff, just as we are seeing in the plummeting numbers of medics and nurses moving us close to a cliff in the operation of the NHS. My university’s medical research capability is not unusual in being truly international, with vital programmes led by world-leading European scholars. If we don't make it much clearer that we want talented and hard-working colleagues to stay, there are dire times ahead for the aged and infirm of the UK.

But my talk for UUK will not be about these dire things. It is about something more dangerous to us all. It is about the potential loss of a society open to the world.

The symptoms of this are not hard to discern. The murder of Jo Cox was one of the awful peaks of the evil. It is the poisoned notion that if I welcome to our country those who look or sound different from me, we are all endangered.

An old disease has emerged in virulent new versions across the world. We have to admire German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s wonderful stand against it. She has taken the most awful political damage but she has done something truly noble in saving all those refugee families. If there is any accounting scheme to reckon up acts of virtue, she has given the German people a gigantic credit.  

And that is where we come in. How are universities to remain open to the world? And what should motivate us to do so?

We need to welcome academics regardless of nationality, including those who are displaced and at risk. We have everything to gain from the brilliant academics from Syria and elsewhere now trapped in refugee camps. We should remember that the US was a very mediocre place in science and technology until so many Jewish scientists fled there. I benefited personally from the boost that Lord Cherwell gave to the University of Oxford’s physics community by recruiting brilliant German Jews.

Today we face a new challenge to our identity – will we be narrow or open? We need to keep up the precious task of showing our students what being open to the world can bring.  

That's why I will not deliver my speech to UUK alone but will take with me students who are living proof of what our international university represents. Young people who began their lives in Romania, Somalia and Malaysia but who brought their talents and optimism to our country, making it a better and more open place. I will have slides, of course, but they are both my evidence and my co-presenters.

On this topic, like others that go to the heart of who we are, our students are no mere customers – we speak as one.  

For the truth is, we would want to be a global university even without the crucial economic support from overseas students on which higher education funding in the UK has been forced to depend. As Times Higher Education rankings editor Phil Baty repeatedly reminds those who take an interest in global rankings, outstanding scholarship is indivisible from internationalism and the mobility of talent.  

Being international is how our British universities become "great", and how they will stay that way. But internationalism in higher education also reminds the world of a deeper truth: that there are better ways of living together than the walls and conflicts that increasingly scar our world. Universities offer students a model of society in which the possibilities of misunderstandings and even hate are diminished by understanding and friendship. 

Where else in the UK do people routinely meet people from other parts of the world? If 50 per cent of British young people go to university, how much does it matter that this 50 per cent will meet people from other countries and learn what they share in common?

Yes, our international universities are crucial to Britain's economic future and global competitiveness,  and we reinvigorate our regions as a direct result of the investment made by families from across the world. But we must not miss the more important educational truth of what we learn in the process. It is beyond price that universities continue to be places where, as I was reminded by a student who came to the UK as an asylum seeker fleeing conflict, "no one can tell you who to be friends with or who to love".  

Our colleagues and students from around the globe must be safe and welcome with us in our universities and the towns and cities across the UK that rely on them. If we dare to research, to teach and make a difference to communities near and far with this precious truth at our core, then we shall be open to the world. 

Sir Keith Burnett is vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield and co-founded the #WeAreInternational campaign, now supported by more than 100 UK universities.

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Print headline: Dear European researchers in the UK: we want you to stay

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