Brexit vote sparks huge uncertainty for UK universities

UUK moves to reassure sector, saying it will lobby government on EU staff and students being able to ‘continue to work and study at British universities’

June 24, 2016
European Union (EU) flag missing star (Brexit)

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Universities in the UK face uncertainties about the future of research funding, student fees and hiring of staff from the European Union after voters opted in favour of Brexit.

Despite strong support for the Remain side in university towns including Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester, the number of votes required for the Leave camp to win the historic referendum passed the 50 per cent threshold shortly after 6am.

Although any complete exit from the EU could be years away, the result is still likely to send shockwaves through higher education in the UK.

The Russell Group warned the vote had created "significant uncertainty for our leading universities".

Dame Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK, issued a statement at around 7am saying that leaving the EU would “create significant challenges for universities”.

“Although this is not an outcome that we wished or campaigned for, we respect the decision of the UK electorate. We should remember that leaving the EU will not happen overnight – there will be a gradual exit process with significant opportunities to seek assurances and influence future policy,” she said.

“Throughout the transition period our focus will be on securing support that allows our universities to continue to be global in their outlook, internationally networked and an attractive destination for talented people from across Europe. These features are central to ensuring that British universities continue to be the best in the world. 

“Our first priority will be to convince the UK government to take steps to ensure that staff and students from EU countries can continue to work and study at British universities and to promote the UK as a welcoming destination for the brightest and best minds.

“They make a powerful contribution to university research and teaching and have a positive impact on the British economy and society. We will also prioritise securing opportunities for our researchers and students to access vital pan-European programmes and build new global networks.”

Wendy Piatt, director-general of the Russell Group, said: “Leaving the European Union creates significant uncertainty for our leading universities but we will work with the Government to minimise any disruption caused by this decision. Throughout the campaign both sides acknowledged the value of EU funding to our universities and we will be seeking assurances from the Government that this will be replaced and sustained long term.

“The UK has not yet left the EU so it is important that our staff and students from other member countries understand that there will be no immediate impact on their status at our universities. However, we will be seeking assurances from the Government that staff and students currently working and studying at our universities can continue to do so after the UK negotiates leaving the EU. 

“The free movement of talent, the networks, collaborations, critical mass of research activity and funding from EU membership have played a crucial part in the success of Russell Group universities. We will be working closely with the Government to secure the best deal for universities from the negotiations to come so that we can continue to form productive collaborations across Europe.”

Meanwhile, Dave Phoenix, chair of the MillionPlus group and vice-chancellor of London South Bank University, asked government ministers to consider delaying the Higher Education and Research Bill given the need for a period of stability.

“Ministers should think long and hard about the merits of pushing ahead with the HE and Research Bill and the proposals in the BIS HE White Paper at the present time. The Bill has UK-wide implications and will introduce far-reaching changes to the HE and research architecture in Britain," he said.

He also said the government should "re-think its approach to international students by taking these students out of net migration targets, introducing new post-study routes, increasing research funding and making sure that universities are protected in funding terms and not disadvantaged in the global market".

Sarah Main, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said: “This outcome provides a real challenge for our sector. Science is an area where the relationship between the UK and the EU was particularly beneficial. Not least because scientists won billions of pounds of research funding for the UK, above and beyond what we put in. (€8.8bn between 2007 and 2013.) In addition, free movement of people in the EU made it easy for scientists to travel, collaborate and share ideas with the best in Europe and for companies and universities in the UK to easily access top talent from Europe." 

And a spokesman for Universities Scotland, representing institutions in a home nation that voted to Remain in the EU, said "the most important thing right now is to advise EU staff and students working and studying in our Scottish institutions that nothing changes overnight as a result of this referendum result.

“Our priorities are to influence the negotiations for the terms of Scotland, and the UK’s, future relationship with the EU. We want to retain the right for staff and students from EU countries to continue working and studying in Scotland and to negotiate access to European programmes for students, staff and research. We believe this is compatible with the electorate’s decision and would be to the benefit of Scotland and the UK.”

Vice-chancellors and UUK had run an extensive campaign for the country to remain in the EU, based, among other factors, on the extensive research funding received from the bloc.

Just a few days ago, more than 100 vice-chancellors signed a new open letter to warn about that leaving the EU could “undermine our position as a global leader in science and innovation, impoverish our campuses and limit opportunities for British people”.

Among those in the sector to react as the result become clear in the early hours of Friday was vice-chancellor of De Montfort University, Dominic Shellard:

Another vice-chancellor, Chris Husbands of Sheffield Hallam University, spoke for many when he tweeted about heading into work after a night watching the results come in:

Meanwhile, John Curtice, polling expert and professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, told the BBC that forecasts that graduates would be much keener on remaining in the EU were “clearly reflected in the geographical pattern of the vote”.

“In those places with most graduates the average level of support for Remain was 58 per cent (typified by high Remain votes in Edinburgh, Oxford, and Cambridge) whereas in those with fewest graduates it was just 39 per cent.”

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