Post-Brexit Britain could decline from “second in the world to 20th” in higher education and research if the inflow of academic talent is restricted and the nation exits the European Union research frameworks, UCL president Michael Arthur has warned MPs.
Professor Arthur, who leads on Brexit issues for the Russell Group, made the comment at a hearing on science and research issues held by the House of Commons Exiting the EU Committee.
Meanwhile, the Campaign for Science and Engineering has released figures that it obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, showing that the Home Office refused sponsorship applications for more than 6,000 skilled non-EU workers with job offers in a four-month period, after immigration caps were hit.
Of 6,080 total refusals for sponsorship of non-EU skilled worker applicants spread across the months between December 2017 and March 2018, 3,500 were for engineering, IT, technology, STEM teaching and medical roles – some of which would have been for university roles – according to CaSE.
Witnesses giving evidence to the Exiting the EU committee – also including Sarah Main, executive director of CaSE, and Beth Thompson, head of policy at the Wellcome Trust – stressed the importance of the UK taking part in the EU’s Framework Programme 9 as an associated country, while also warning against imposing a visa system for EU researchers seeking to enter the UK after Brexit.
A White Paper on the UK’s post-Brexit immigration system for EU nationals is expected before Parliament’s summer recess.
Professor Arthur told the committee that, if the UK was not part of the EU’s research programmes in future, it would be in “significant difficulty” in terms of international excellence, adding that European Research Council grants (part of framework programmes) were “critical” in attracting the best academic talent.
Asked by Labour MP Emma Reynolds what the impact of applying the current visa system to EU nationals would be, Professor Arthur told the committee: “In 20 years’ time, instead of being second in the world to the United States of America, I’m worried that we will be 20th or so...and part [of the reason] will be this insidious onset of inability to recruit the world's greatest talent.”
Richard Graham, a Conservative member of the committee, later challenged Professor Arthur on the comment, inviting him to concede that there was “a bit of hyperbole in that” and arguing that the future of UK higher education depended on its quality “as much as it does on Brexit, immigration”.
But Professor Arthur replied: “The honest answer is none of us know what the impact will be of a significant exit from EU research and funding. We're worried about it and we need to express it in ways that get people to understand the magnitude of change that could occur.”
Following the release of the skilled worker sponsorship refusal figures by CaSE, the Science and Technology Committee of MPs said that it “intends to develop its own proposals for immigration and visa rules for scientists”.
This came after the government’s rejection of the committee’s call for the conclusions of the Migration Advisory Committee relating to science to be brought forward to form part of an “early deal” for science and innovation.
CaSE argues that the government should exempt roles on the Shortage Occupation List and PhD level roles from the Tier 2 cap, and that there should be no “arbitrary cap” on skilled workers in any future system.