What the government’s plans for a hard Brexit mean for the UK’s universities

The University of Cambridge is expecting a fall in applications from EU students. Azeira/Wikipedia

Theresa May’s confirmation that Brexit means leaving the single market has been met with anxiety in many UK universities. The sector currently contributes £73 billion annually to the economy (2.8% of GDP), 757,000 jobs (2.7% of the labour market) and brings £10.7bn in export earnings. Less than half of univerities’ income is from public sources. Graduate unemployment is half that of non-graduates and salaries are 43% higher among graduates.

The government says EU students will continue to study in UK universities, with no impact on loan eligibility or fees. But, of course, that’s only true while the UK remains an EU member. The position after Brexit “depends on negotiations”. But it has been reported that the Russell Group of research-intensive universities has concerns about EU students and staff – the University of Cambridge has said it has had a 17% drop in EU student applications for 2017 and is modelling for a two-thirds fall in future years.

The EU programme Erasmus+ – which supports student and staff mobility and training throughout Europe and beyond – has supported 86,585 individuals and 2,775 projects to the value of €354m between 2014-16. UK participation will not suffer immediate impact, but this will change after Brexit. The vice-chancellors’ group, Universities UK, is demanding continued access – but without financial contributions this is unlikely. Losing Erasmus+ access would dramatically reduce staff and student mobility, including participation in work placements abroad.

Research after Brexit

The impact on research is likely to be equally severe. While the UK remains a member of the EU, access to the European Commission’s €80bn funding programme Horizon 2020 is in theory unaffected. In her speech on January 17, May said she would welcome agreement to continue to collaborate with the UK’s European partners on major science, research and technology initiatives.

But funding from Horizon2020 will not be available to the UK without it making contributions to the budget – and these stop on the day the country leaves the EU. Even if access is secured, the UK will have to pay all the costs of its participation. Moreover, there is no guarantee that UK engagement can or will continue. The government has guaranteed support for existing projects up to 2020, but thereafter there is only uncertainty. The government has not even formally triggered the exit process yet many academics already report difficulties for bids involving UK partners.

The Royal Society says the UK received €6.94bn from Framework Programme Seven – the predecessor to Horizon 2020 – during 2007-13, making it the second-highest recipient. This income, combined with structural funding, amounts to €8.8bn of the total €107bn. UK-based researchers also receive by far the greatest amount of funding of any nation from the European Research Council and the Marie Curie Fellows Association.

The impact on staffing may also be dramatic if universities cannot easily hire staff from the from the European Economic Area (EU members plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) after Brexit. Currently 14% of senior lecturers are non-UK members of the EEA and a further 10% are from outside the EEA.

Worryingly, a survey from the University and College Union (which represents staff at UK institutions), published on January 9, highlights this insecurity. As many as 42% of respondents reported that they were considering leaving the UK – with some blaming reduced access to research funding. Almost half said “they know of academics who have lost access to research funding as a direct result of the Brexit vote”. And Irish universities are already attracting UK-based researchers worried about funding or their status after Brexit. Clearly, the confirmation that UK is leaving the single market is not going to make the situation any better.

Will universities be able to attract the talent they need? dannyman/Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

Meanwhile, the Higher Education Policy Institute, a think tank, has reported that the Home Office is also considering further restrictions on overseas student visas, which it claims could cost the UK £2bn a year in lost revenue.

The road ahead

So where to from here? The vice-chancellors’ group demands that the government maintains and builds international research collaboration in UK universities and wants guarantees that the UK remains attractive to talent. In what may be wishful thinking, the group has also said that there may be post-Brexit opportunities for continued engagement in collaborative international research projects if government support is strong – suggesting universities can thrive outside the EU.

There is some reason for optimism. The prime minister announced an Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund with an extra £2bn of R&D investment per year up to 2020. This was subsequently confirmed in the autumn statement in which the chancellor also promised £400m through the British Business Bank to support venture capital and new incentives for investment.

But, of course, none of this allays the acute anxiety in the sector. What is needed is a more assertive approach from UK universities’ leadership. They need to be outspoken in reminding the public, industry and politicians of the risks from Brexit. They must stress universities’ direct and indirect contribution locally and nationally – and particularly that of non-UK staff and students. Damage to research threatens the UK’s industrial base and the reputation of the country’s world class universities.

Going forward in this uncertain climate, UK universities need to enhance trans-institutional partnerships and links with industries. Currently 76% of all UK publicly funded research is in universities. Yet this isn’t without risks. Increased reliance on industry may privilege STEM subjects and applied research – blue-sky research is less appealing to investors wanting a quick return. Companies will also want ownership of research findings.

Research collaboration with continental universities should also be developed. Universities such as Nottingham, Liverpool and Coventry are already engaged in distance learning or overseas campus operations, but this is not everyone’s choice. There is no substitute for the diverse international appeal of most UK campuses.

Researchers and other staff in the UK’s universities did not expect the hard Brexit that now seems probable. If quitting the single market leads to reduced access to EU funding, reduced opportunities for collaborative research as well as difficulty in attracting students and staff from EEA countries, the impact on universities will be severe.