'Urgent need' for ministers to prevent post-Brexit HE brain drain

Lord Hunt on how to ensure the higher education sector retains its competitive edge post-Brexit

October 11, 2017
European Union (EU) flag missing star (Brexit)

Our economy is hardly in such a robust state that the UK university sector – one of our country’s world class performers – can be ignored. Remarkably, however, Theresa May’s government has caused considerable damage by refusing to exclude international students from net migration targets, even though recent Office of National Statistics figures show 97 per cent of them leave at the end of their studies.

Home office minister Baroness Williams even admitted to the Lords yesterday that students make a very limited contribution to net migration figures.

While it’s no surprise that the government’s approach has led to a decline in numbers and market share, a looming Brexit threatens to have a more direct impact on students coming to the UK from elsewhere in the European Union. Universities contribute £11 billion of exports to our economy. We have long been the most popular destination for international students in Europe and the second in the world, after the US.

A staggering 438,000 overseas students were studying here in 2015/16, well over a quarter of whom were from the rest of the EU.

Access to research funds and exchange programmes such as Erasmus+ are critical to this success. Research income from the EU was worth £840 million to UK universities that same year and in the latest grants for scientific research allocated by the Horizon 2020 programme, we received more than any EU country.

Under EU rules on free movement, those studying in the UK have the same access to higher education as UK students, including tuition fee loans. And along with those applying to begin their studies here before the March 2019 exit date, they will not see any difference in loan eligibility or fee status. The big unknown however, is what will happen post-Brexit.

As it stands, EU students could become liable for significantly higher overseas tuition fees – something that may reduce applications and have a damaging impact on our university sector. Indeed, other countries have already become more competitive. Germany, has begun holding courses in English and other languages to attract a wider net of foreign students. A survey of prospective international students in July 2016 indicated that a third were less likely to study in the UK following the referendum decision and the reported increase in racist and xenophobic attacks.

A similar impact could be felt in relation to staff. New visa requirements on EU migrants will make it harder to recruit leading academic to UK institutions. As the University and College Union points out, any brain drain of intellectual talent to competitor countries will lead to a negative impact on the international reputation of the UK and inevitably reduce our export potential.

There is an urgent need for ministers to sort this out. Any new system for EU nationals coming to our universities has to be simple, and minimise cost. It is critical that we ensure full access to future EU research and innovation programmes, along with our participation in the Erasmus+ programme. Longer term, we need an immigration system that actively supports our universities to recruit talented staff and students from all over the world without burdensome visa requirements.

Our universities have a huge contribution to make to the UK economy, in boosting growth and innovation through world-beating research. In an increasingly global competitive market, it is essential that they continue to attract high-quality EU staff and students.

Lord Philip Hunt of Kings Heath is a member of Labour’s frontbench team in the House of Lords. This article first appeared on the Labour Lords blog.

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