A “hard Brexit” could damage one of the UK’s “best industries” through its impact on higher education and be the “biggest disaster for the university sector in many years”, MPs have been warned.
The House of Commons Education Committee held an evidence session at Pembroke College, Oxford on 11 January; its first in an inquiry into the impact of exiting the European Union on higher education.
Neil Carmichael, the Conservative chair of the committee, asked the witness panel what the impact of a “hard Brexit” – generally defined as an exit from the single market and end to free movement – could be for higher education.
Alastair Buchan, head of Brexit strategy at the University of Oxford, said: “You risk damaging one of your best industries, which is the knowledge-based economy in this country.”
John Latham, vice-chancellor of Coventry University, said the UK would be “extremely uncompetitive in terms of the way people would view us”.
Catherine Barnard, professor of EU law at the University of Cambridge, said it would mean “lives turned upside down” for EU higher education staff in the UK, and it also “promptly cuts off the flow of excellent people” coming to Britain.
Alistair Fitt, Oxford Brookes University vice-chancellor, said: “It would probably be the biggest disaster for the university sector in many years.”
Professor Buchan highlighted the importance of the EU’s Erasmus+ staff and student mobility programme to the UK, as well as its research programmes.
He noted the progress of Asian nations in research. “Our worry is that China and India are in the ascendancy. We have been second only to the US. We need to be very careful that we negotiate the kind of openness that academic [life] is all about,” he added.
Professor Barnard was asked what the potential outcomes of the negotiations could be for the UK and its universities.
She said that one possibility could be that “we have sector-specific deals and that there is a sectoral-specific deal for higher education, which does guarantee free movement of researchers, students, academics and academic-related staff, in much the same way as occurs at present”.
British universities are “net recipients of EU staff coming into the UK” and “we receive more than we send”, Professor Barnard continued.
She added: “What we would all hope is that any visa scheme that is introduced...is not like the one we have at the moment [for non-EU students and staff].”
The present visa regime is “extremely cumbersome and highly labour-intensive for universities and colleges that have to administer it”, Professor Barnard said.
“That is our great concern: that we have to apply a full visa scheme to both EU and non-EU migrant workers.”
Asked about what disadvantages there were from EU membership for higher education, Professor Latham said “there is the opportunity now to go out and globally set up activity, which we probably would have done if we hadn’t had it easier in Europe”.
Professor Buchan also suggested that the university sector had failed to communicate its strengths ahead of the EU referendum.
“We haven’t convinced people, we haven’t actually adduced the evidence of how good we are in a way that’s been through the media, through the politicians,” he said.