Cambridge: Brexit ‘cliff edge’ risks huge fall in EU student numbers

Universities warn parliamentary inquiry that Brexit vote already deterring staff and students from coming to UK

December 8, 2016
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Restricting the free movement of students and academics from the European Union after Brexit is likely to have a “sudden and damaging impact” to UK universities and EU student numbers could fall by two-thirds, the University of Cambridge has warned.

In its submission to an inquiry by the House of Commons Education Committee that will explore the impact of exiting the EU, the university says it is particularly concerned about the “prospect of a ‘cliff edge’ for universities in which regulatory and visa changes have a sudden and damaging impact”.

The warning, part of a 3,000-word written statement by three Cambridge pro vice-chancellors, is one of 190 written submissions to the parliamentary inquiry published on its website on 8 December.

The University of Cambridge’s submission draws particular attention to the uncertainty faced by about 2,000 of its staff who are non-UK EU nationals, of whom the majority are postdoctoral researchers.

Describing these staff as the “engine room for much of the research that ensures the university’s world-leading reputation”, the university says “there is a significant risk they would not want to come to the UK due to the actual or anticipated effort, uncertainty and cost involved in securing a visa”.

Securing visas for its EU staff would cost about £1.25 million a year, while the personal cost to postdocs alone of gaining visas and health cover would be about £635,000 a year, the submission says.

Cambridge also says that it is “already seeing signs of reduction in numbers of EU undergraduate applicants” after the Brexit vote. If fees for EU students rise to the level of those for non-EU students when the UK leaves the EU, as seems likely, “it is almost certain that application numbers will fall further”, says Cambridge. “We are currently modelling a two-third reduction in admissions from the non-UK EU.”

Other submissions by universities, businesses, mission groups, learned societies and individual academics also call for the government to give more protection for EU staff working in UK universities, saying that uncertainty is already causing a brain drain.

The London School of Economics’ submission says the institution is “already seeing an impact on staff retention, and an upswing in prospective staff deciding not to take up positions in favour of offers outside the UK”.

“The lack of clarity over the future immigration status of non-UK EU nationals affects approximately one third of our current academic and administrative staff,” it adds.

“It’s crucial that we don’t allow Brexit to become a catastrophe for our university sector,” said Neil Carmichael, chair of the education committee, who said the evidence collected so far “highlights the degree of concern about the fate of UK universities post-Brexit”.

Universities UK's submission reveals that two-thirds of universities polled recently reported that job offers had been rejected on account of the Brexit vote, while a quarter had faced resignations linked to the June decision.

It says there were nearly 125,000 non-UK EU students enrolled at UK universities in 2014-15 – 5.5 per cent of all students – generating £3.7 billion and 34,000 jobs for the economy.

The Russell Group, which represents 24 research-intensive universities, warns that bringing EU staff under the remit of visa regulations could have a major impact on many strategically important subjects.

EU staff made up 21 per cent of academic staff at Russell Group universities – the sector average is 16 per cent – but this proportion is as high as 38 per cent for economics, 35 per cent for modern languages and 31 per cent for mathematics. In chemical engineering and physics, the figure is 27 per cent, the Russell Group says.

“If our universities are not able to recruit the most talented academics and teachers from across the world, including from the EU...this will have significant knock-on consequences for training future graduates in these key subjects and the UK’s national ambition to boost productivity and economic growth,” it says.

Around 6,000 non-UK EU staff at Russell Group universities who earn less than £30,000 a year would not be eligible to work in the UK under existing Tier 2 visa requirements, the group adds.

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