The UK government should protect freedom of movement for academics when the country leaves the European Union, former universities minister Lord Willetts said.
The intervention came after Philip Hammond, the UK’s chancellor, suggested that senior bankers would be unaffected by future controls on Continental migration. Any restrictions would “facilitate movement of highly skilled people between financial institutions and businesses”, Mr Hammond told a House of Lords committee.
Lord Willetts told Times Higher Education that the university sector deserved to get a similar guarantee.
“It would be great if we heard a real priority being given to the movement of academic staff,” he said. “We’ve had the chancellor talking about how important it is that bankers can move between the City and the EU; it’s equally important that academics and researchers can move easily between Britain and the EU.”
Lord Willetts said that it would “take years” for the full impact of Brexit on the UK higher education sector to become clear, but argued that the treatment of Switzerland’s access to Horizon 2020 research funding following its decision to restrict freedom of movement would likely be a “very important indicator” of how negotiations might progress.
The peer added that UK universities’ future links to the EU would need to be the subject of “some very creative thinking”, with potential options involving joining – and paying into – Horizon 2020, or “running a parallel structure alongside it”.
Lord Willetts told THE that ministers should see higher education as “one of the top half-dozen issues” in the Brexit negotiations, but added that universities needed to do more to ensure that their demands are addressed.
In particular, he suggested that institutions should look to build stronger links with universities beyond the EU, for example, in Commonwealth nations, the Gulf and North America.
“Showing that universities understand that something changed on 23 June and that they are responding to that, I think, is a good way of being listened to by government,” Lord Willetts said.
“At that point I think ministers will be more responsive if universities say ‘we’re doing all this to build networks and soft power outside the EU but it would also be great if you could negotiate vigorously and have us high on the list of priorities for your negotiations with the EU’.”
Lord Willetts was speaking during the THE World Academic Summit, held at the University of California, Berkeley last month.