There are cases of UK university jobs failing to attract interest from Europe and of researchers turning down posts in the wake of the Brexit vote, according to the head of England’s funding council.
Madeleine Atkins, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), which funds and regulates English universities, told the organisation’s annual meeting in London that the issue of the “future talent pool” for UK universities post-Brexit has “really gone up the agenda in the last month or so”.
Ms Atkins also said that Hefce research on university sponsorship of schools has found “no evidence” of improved attainment in those schools. Theresa May, the UK prime minister, wants universities to sponsor schools as a condition of being allowed to charge higher tuition fees and sees that as a way to improve school standards.
On Brexit, Ms Atkins said in her speech on 20 October that the “really, really important point coming through now from everybody is the future talent pool. Not just about the free movement of researchers and students from Europe, but indeed the attractiveness of the UK as a destination internationally.”
In response to a question from the audience, she said that the issue was “vacancies that are not attracting any serious interest from Europe or indeed elsewhere. It is people who have been offered jobs and have now turned them down on the back of the referendum vote. It’s a concern about EU students, hugely represented in our PhD population…very much part of the pipeline that moves through into a vigorous…research base for the country.
“Those [problems] are beginning to be articulated more [by the sector] than they were immediately after the referendum.”
Ms Atkins said in her speech that another “big issue for negotiation is which parts of the European research funding infrastructure would we want to buy into, if any, as a part of the negotiating stance for Brexit. That, of course, is still very much [a] live [issue].”
The UK could seek to remain part of the European Union’s research programmes, including prestigious European Research Council grants, after Brexit. But there have been suggestions that the EU might make associated country status contingent on the UK continuing to subscribe to free movement of people, which Ms May has signalled is unlikely to happen.
Ms Atkins also said that Hefce has been “monitoring the impact – if it is that – of university sponsorship on schools” in terms of their ratings by the schools regulator Ofsted “for some time now”.
Hefce had found that “about 50 per cent of the sector we regulate are indeed in a sponsorship relationship already”, she said.
She added: “As yet there is no evidence that sponsorship yields improved attainment in those schools. But I’m glad to say we do no harm.”
Ms Atkins also addressed the Higher Education and Research Bill, which will merge Hefce into the new Office for Students to create a powerful market-style regulator for English higher education.
She said that MPs have been “tightly whipped” by their parties on discussions of the bill in Parliament. But she predicted that there would be a “rather different set of discussions” when the bill reaches the House of Lords.
Royal Assent for the bill, the final stage in making it law, is expected in the spring, Ms Atkins said.