‘Blue card’ call for free movement of academics across UK and EU

LSE research head says academia should work with other service sectors to enable free movement for a fixed period of time

January 26, 2021
Flags of UK and the European Union in London
Source: iStock

The UK higher education sector should lobby for a joint visa scheme with the European Union to enable academics to continue travelling freely within the region, a policy expert has said.

Simon Hix, the Harold Laski professor of political science and pro director (research) at the London School of Economics and Political Science, said that although Brexit ends “complete free movement of labour” between the UK and the EU, “a conversation needs to be started about potentially an EU/UK blue card scheme” that would allow free movement for certain workers for fixed time periods.

He said the higher education sector should work with other service sectors, such as the arts, media, financial and legal sectors, to push for such an initiative.

“A lot of the services sectors in the UK would find this very attractive because they are very reliant on that talent pool. Part of it is a global talent pool, but a lot of it is a European talent pool that we’ve been used to,” he said during an LSE event on the impact of Brexit on higher education.

Last year, the UK government announced a new global talent scheme that will fast-track visa applications from foreign researchers, including EU citizens. However, Professor Hix, a leading researcher on European and comparative politics, said this scheme “could end up being incredibly bureaucratic, despite the fact they’ll try to make it as light touch as possible” and argued that there would be value in creating an EU-specific programme.

“No one’s going to argue about, say, giving an academic a five-year or a 10-year blue card visa that allows them to live anywhere on the Continent or in the UK…That’s not what the [Brexit] debate about immigration was about – it was not about high-skilled workers in HE or the creative industries or financial services,” he said.

The EU already has a blue card programme for non-EU citizens who are looking to work in the bloc. However, there have been concerns about the limited use of the scheme and there are plans to reform the policy.

Professor Hix said that there was also potential for the new Turing student mobility scheme – the UK’s replacement for Erasmus+ – to include “a European pillar”.

“A lot of British universities would be interested in developing a European element of the Turing scheme. I don’t see any contradiction between having the Turing scheme as a global scheme and then having a European path within that that allows students to have exchanges a bit like the Erasmus exchanges,” he said.

However, Professor Hix added that the UK’s attractiveness and ability to attract and retain EU talent would depend as much on the country’s domestic policy agenda as on its future negotiations with the EU.

“If higher education in the UK gets pushed towards a much more instrumental, business-oriented, skills-type agenda, two-year type degree programmes, I really think that’s potentially very dangerous, and I think that could actually reduce our competitiveness globally and reduce our ability to hold on to a lot of continental European talent,” he said.

Wendy Thomson, vice-chancellor of the University of London, who also spoke at the event, said higher education “ought to make ourselves more prominent in the debate on European trade negotiations than we have done”.

“We have every reason to feel that we’re an important part of the global Britain trade and influencing agenda, and we have got to reflect on how we didn’t manage to make ourselves more prominent in those negotiations than we did. I don’t have an answer to that, but it’s one I think we need to find if we want to influence the next stage forward,” she said.

Professor Thomson added that the dual challenges of Covid-19 and Brexit mean that “the bandwidth in government is incredibly thin”, but she suggested that this could provide an opportunity for the higher education sector to take initiative on future policy agreements with the EU.

“We need to see if we can be trusted enough to take on some of these challenges, work alongside government and come up with clever schemes of the kind that Simon’s mentioned that will be in the interests of global Britain but also which nobody [in government] has the time to figure out,” she said.

Beth Thompson, head of UK and EU policy and advocacy at the Wellcome Trust, said it was important for the research community to continue to “demonstrate the value” of participating in Horizon Europe, suggesting that while the UK had made the decision to participate in the programme now, future membership was not guaranteed.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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