Recent comments from high-profile figures within UK higher education about the impact of a no-deal Brexit have highlighted fears within the sector around its competitiveness in the wider global market. The government’s landmark defeat in the House of Commons this week means that those fears may be realised, sooner rather than later.
As a sector, UK higher education has benefited in many ways from EU membership, and it is no surprise that many HE staff campaigned strongly for “remain” in the referendum. The impact of loss of access to research funding has been well explored, but the opportunities afforded to UK universities by the EU Structural Fund and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) have also been numerous.
These funds, financial tools set up by the EU to address disparities in income, wealth and opportunities by disbursing funds to regions of member states that are deprived of such, have seen regeneration and development flourish, with UK universities being key recipients.
They have allowed the creation of innovation campuses, supported cutting-edge research and fostered innovation within the wider business community. They have also helped communities with low participation rates in higher education through outreach opportunities.
Faced with the prospect of this funding well drying up, the UK has created an alternative – a shared prosperity fund, drawn from public funding. However, only time will tell whether this will provide the same level of financial support as the EU did. In walking away – deal or no deal – the UK is cutting off access to one of the world’s largest funding pots, and higher education risks being one of the biggest victims.
Finances aside, the higher education sector has benefited socially and culturally from freedom of movement, particularly through the movement of research staff and postgraduate students. A no-deal Brexit would cause this to come to an end overnight, with no soft landing.
Uncertainty around the UK’s continuing ability to take part in existing EU study or research programmes could signal a change in attitude among European academics. Even if future participation is confirmed, there is the possibility that academics will opt to be based at institutions elsewhere in the EU. To mitigate this, universities must strengthen partnerships with other institutions, perhaps sharing or seconding staff between them.
Practically, more work needs to be done to forge networks that allow people to be employed in the UK yet continue to be members of these global academic communities, for example through partnership agreements or international hubs. For many UK institutions, this would require a shift in their international strategy, which may have previously taken Europe for granted.
And these partnerships work both ways. The research ecosystem’s continued success will rely on European universities and even the EU itself to appreciate the value of UK higher education’s research brand.
The recent immigration White Paper quite rightly recognised the need for highly skilled migrants across many sectors. While it emphasises that there is to be no cap on genuine students, they will still be subject to more stringent immigration checks. UK higher education and its advocates must shout louder so that the possibility of creating a new “university” visa tier category specifically for the recruitment of academic staff and students remains at the forefront of debate.
After all, the higher education sector – compared with other areas of the UK economy – has high levels of compliance and low levels of abuse of the existing immigration system. This must be acknowledged during negotiations around the future immigration regime.
Universities must also boldly articulate exactly how they can contribute to the UK post-Brexit and seek to negotiate a trade-off: more freedom and more flexibility, so that they can help to mitigate the effects of rough waters ahead.
Central to this lobbying should be an emphasis on universities’ civic mission. Universities fulfil a unique role that is beneficial to both the economy and society as a whole. Over the years, their contribution to the UK’s place on the global stage has been significant, and the local benefits of this must be reinforced across all levels of politics and local communities when making the case for continued future support.
The post-Brexit landscape, although uncertain, will provide universities with the perfect opportunity to prove their worth. As a country, the UK is going to be increasingly reliant on higher education to heal divides, fill skills gaps and cement its international status. Higher education is special: it provides numerous opportunities for growth and prosperity. Wherever the Brexit negotiations end up, this must remain so at all costs.
Smita Jamdar is head of education at the law firm Shakespeare Martineau.
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