UK universities are attempting to forge an alliance with the City of London to lobby for continued mobility of highly skilled workers in a post-Brexit settlement.
Overtures have already been made to the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) to engage in some kind of “common cause”, a conference on the implications of Brexit for UK research has heard.
Andrew Jones, pro vice-chancellor for research and enterprise at City, University of London, said that the problems universities faced from Brexit, such as the end of free movement from the rest of the continent, “are very much aligned…with the dominant sectors in the City: knowledge-based business services and professional services firms”.
He recalled that he had attended a CBI event in London three days after the referendum, and found that those representing financial services believed they “had much common ground with research, with higher education”.
“We’re in a similar boat to the City of London in that…the banks are full of highly skilled European workers too. There’s an alignment there,” he told Discussing the Impact of Brexit: Universities, Higher Education and Research Funding, a conference organised by Public Policy Exchange in London on 7 September.
He also pointed out that banks would be “higher on the priority list” than universities in Brexit negotiations.
Maddalaine Ansell, chief executive of the University Alliance mission group, told delegates that her organisation had met with the CBI shortly after the referendum, and the business organisation had been “very supportive” of exploring ways to create a “common cause” with universities. Such an alliance was a “good idea”, she added.
However, whether City firms will wish to align themselves with universities is another question. Earlier in the session Ms Ansell, a former civil servant, told delegates that the new prime minister Theresa May, during her time as home secretary, was “no fan of universities”.
“Theresa May saw universities as self-serving,” she said. “She felt that we, as a sector, did not engage helpfully with the Prevent agenda [the government’s anti-extremism initiative].
“She felt we wanted the freedom to recruit whoever we wanted into the country”, while universities refused to keep tabs on whether international students left the country when they were supposed to, she said.
Asked whether banks would wish to align themselves with universities, Professor Jones pointed out that the City had public image problems of its own. “Bankers aren’t exactly [in favour],” he said. “There’s some common ground [between universities and banks] in that position.”
In a statement to Times Higher Education, Neil Carberry, CBI director for people and skills policy, said: “As the UK negotiates a new relationship with the EU, maintaining access to people from across Europe is critical for business and universities alike. This helps attract investment to the UK."
Meanwhile, the conference came a day before Germany overtook the UK in one of the first tranches of European Research Council grants announced since the referendum.
This year 61 grantees from German institutions won starting grants – designed to help early career researchers – compared with 59 from the UK, according to the council.
Since 2011, the UK has beaten Germany on this measure every year except 2014.
However, a spokesman for the ERC denied that the political situation had had any impact on the awards, and pointed out that the review panels made their evaluations from 30 May to 24 June – almost entirely before the referendum result. Germany has also been steadily closing the gap with the UK since 2011.