As Brexit negotiations resume, the stakes are high for the UK’s universities. The nature of the "divorce bill", the rights of European Union citizens in the UK and the Northern Ireland border issue are major issues for universities.
While negotiations continue on these issues, at a slow pace, there remains a serious lack of clarity on crucial policy issues that will shape the post-Brexit environment for universities.
If our universities are going to thrive post-Brexit, we need clarity on future access to European research networks and funding; student and staff mobility programmes; post-Brexit immigration policy and EU student fees and loans.
Universities have a vital contribution to make to a successful, dynamic and internationally competitive post-Brexit UK. The positive contribution will be greatest if British universities are magnets for international talent, can welcome international students and are leaders in international research collaboration.
While we continue to wait for longer-term clarity about our future relationship with European partners, funding and immigration policy, there are a number of actions that the government should immediately take to ensure stability and reduce uncertainty for universities in the short- to medium-term. The UK university sector needs urgent assurances on stability and transitional issues, if it is to avoid significant damage. Positive action now would maximise stability until the longer-term arrangements are clear and take effect, and minimise the risk of any damaging "cliff-edge" scenario as we exit the EU.
On research collaboration and funding, there is a lack of certainty around UK university researchers’ ability to fully participate in, and secure funding through, the EU’s current Framework Programme for Research and Innovation – Horizon 2020 – beyond Brexit. The UK government needs to signal that it will seek continued UK participation in Horizon 2020 until the end of the current programme (to 2020) and then beyond. It should also strengthen the existing Horizon 2020 Treasury underwrite by committing to fund UK researchers as "third country" participants in the event of full UK participation coming abruptly to an end.
In relation to the Erasmus+ programme, it is unclear whether students and university staff will be able to go abroad through the scheme after the 2018-19 academic year. This is an urgent matter because many students starting university this autumn on degrees with a mandatory year abroad – such as language or international business students – are likely to be planning on being on a placement overseas in 2019-20. The UK government should signal, ahead of the next phase of Brexit negotiations, that it will seek continued UK participation in Erasmus+ post-Brexit, to give existing and future cohorts of students the certainty they need that they can complete their degree with a period abroad as planned.
This should be coupled with a commitment to strengthen the existing underwrite guarantee to cover universities who will have applied for Erasmus+ funding before Brexit, even if they only find they are successful after the point of exit. This will provide students and staff who are planning a period abroad in 2019-20 with the confidence they need to plan ahead and allow universities to continue to apply right up to the point of exit, whatever future arrangements are negotiated.
Turning to EU student fees and loans, students from the EU considering studying in the UK from 2019-20 currently have no certainty on what their likely tuition "fee status" will be, or whether they will remain eligible for financial support in the form of grants and/or loans to support their studies. The government should confirm now that the current EU student finance arrangements will remain in place as part of a post-Brexit implementation period. They should also guarantee "home" fee status and access to grants and/or tuition fee loans for EU students taking up university places in the academic year 2019-20, to reassure students who are already contemplating applying for a UK university degree. We know that the period when European students consider where and whether to study in the UK has already begun.
The post-Brexit immigration policy will, arguably, be one of the most important factors for universities. EU staff and students currently working or studying in the university sector remain uncertain about their long-term work and residency rights in the UK, and future cohorts of European students, and European staff considering taking up a role in the UK in the future, have no clarity on what immigration rules they can expect to adhere to after Brexit. The UK government should guarantee current residency and work rights of EU nationals working in the university sector and their dependents. It is important also that, by the end of 2017, it makes clear its intended direction of travel for managing EU migration in the long-term and that it confirms that no additional barriers will be introduced for EU student and academic migration routes throughout a post-Brexit implementation period.
There is also a need to provide clarity on what will replace European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF). Universities have a great track record of using these funds to drive innovation and local growth, and to generate jobs in local communities.
As the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has reminded us, "the clock is ticking". As the date of the UK’s exit approaches, the need for clarity and stability is becoming increasingly urgent for universities. If it chose to, the government could act now to provide some much-needed support for universities, a sector in which the UK remains truly world-class.
Alistair Jarvis is the chief executive of Universities UK, which represents 136 universities across England, Wales and Northern Ireland