UK universities have been urged to press the government for a sector-specific deal in Brexit talks to ensure free movement continues for staff and students, as key representatives warn against “special pleading” and call for a wider international approach.
Sector divisions on the right way to deal with Brexit go to the heart of questions about the UK’s future openness to overseas academics and students.
In a landmark speech on Brexit last week, Theresa May said that the government would “welcome agreement to continue to collaborate with our European partners on major science, research and technology initiatives”, potentially a sign that the UK could pay to participate in European Union research programmes as an associated country post-Brexit.
In signalling free movement of people with the EU would end as the UK took “control” of immigration and left the single market, Ms May said of immigration from Europe: “We will continue to attract the brightest and the best to work or study in Britain…but that process must be managed properly so that our immigration system serves the national interest.”
There are fears that if Brexit leads to the introduction of a visa system for EU nationals entering the UK to work and study, it could significantly hit both recruitment of EU students (who currently make up 5 per cent of students in the UK) and EU academics (who make up 16 per cent of all academics at UK universities). EU students are also likely to face higher fees post-Brexit, along with the end of their access to UK loans.
Catherine Barnard, professor of EU law at the University of Cambridge, who appeared before the House of Commons Education Committee’s hearing on the impact of Brexit on higher education earlier this month, told Times Higher Education: “If you accept the argument that higher education is one of the jewels in the crown of the British system, then what might the government do to protect higher education? One way would be to have a sector-specific deal which continues with free movement [for students and academics] much on the terms that we’ve got at present.”
Such a sector-specific deal covering free movement could be tied into a deal for UK access to the EU’s research programmes, Professor Barnard suggested.
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of MillionPlus, the group of newer universities, said: “It is quite clear that from farming to finance, those engaged in key sectors of the economy are setting out their priorities for a sector-specific deal in Brexit negotiations. Universities are major contributors in terms of talent and exports and should be doing the same.”
Alistair Jarvis, deputy chief executive of Universities UK, who is leading its work on Brexit, said that grouping together key Brexit higher education issues such as immigration for staff and students along with access to the EU’s research and Erasmus+ staff and student mobility programmes “does start to look a bit like a sector-specific deal”.
But he added. “What I’d caution [against] though, is labelling it as such. Because I think there is a danger that that is seen as special pleading.”
The two main options on immigration were to have a “significantly reformed visa regime” that applies to both EU and non-EU staff and students, or to “continue with that two-tier [system] so you have a better deal for [those coming from the] EU”, Mr Jarvis said.
He also said: “Brexit provides an opportunity to look at what migration the UK most benefits from, both European and international. And I would like to see a reformed visa regime that recognises the value of international talent both from Europe and beyond.”
He added that post-Brexit, the division between non-EU and EU “seems like, essentially, an artificial divide”.
But Ms Tatlow said that any suggestion that a sector-specific deal for higher education would be special pleading “completely misses the point”.
She added: “All key sectors of the economy are already trading globally but they have also traded on completely different terms with the EU...Lumping EU and non-EU students and staff in the same boat is a zero-sum game and should not be the Brexit starting point for HE.”
Ms May has rejected all calls for non-EU students to be removed from the government’s target to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands”. And the government is currently planning a “differentiated” approach on student visas that could see recruitment limited for some institutions.