Brexit isn’t done: What next for the UK’s universities?

The higher education and research sector is concerned about becoming a bargaining chip for Boris Johnson.

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The future of UK universities in the era of Brexit hinges primarily on two things: Erasmus and Horizon. What may sound like meaningless words worthy of Apprentice team names to most are actually the key EU programmes that our universities participate in.

Erasmus is an exchange scheme intended to empower young people through cooperation and mobility between EU countries (i.e. it gives students in EU countries the opportunity to live and learn abroad), and Horizon is a framework for funding research, technological development and innovation. Next year, a new round of these programmes is due, entitled Erasmus Plus and Horizon Europe. The wish of UK universities and the EU institutions is for Britain to apply for “associated status” so that it can participate in such programmes and maintain the quality of the resources, opportunities and contribution of its universities. After all, the UK remains the top recipient of European Research Council funding, with 19.5 per cent of all grants going to UK-based researchers.

The great hope of the higher education and research sector is that participation in these programmes could be handled as a technical, rather than political, matter – separate from the other negotiations. The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has hinted at this in the past.

“It’s all legally possible that Britain becomes a ‘third country’, and therefore can ask for associate membership to Horizon Europe and Erasmus Plus,” says Dr Anne Corbett, a senior LSE Consulting associate, a commentator on European higher education policy, and the author of Universities and the Europe of Knowledge (1995-2005).

No “legal wrangling” would be required for this, she tells me, just “political wrangling”, with the fear being that Boris Johnson may want to use UK universities and higher education policy as a bargaining chip, as he negotiates the future trade relationship with the EU.

“What the higher education sector can do on its own is not totally independent of what’s happening at a major political level, the Johnson level,” says Dr Corbett. “That’s why there is a risk that the negotiations go very badly and the EU would be disinclined to give Britain the best deal possible.”

Indeed, the EU’s new commissioner for innovation, research, culture, education and youth, Mariya Gabriel, warned in January that there could be “no cherry-picking” from the British side: “I don’t want that research and innovation, where we have a strong cooperation already established, to weaken other elements of UK-EU relations.”

With warm words, the government has said Erasmus participation is not under threat, and in 2016 the Treasury promised to guarantee funds for Horizon 2020 research bids by UK universities and researchers – with the science minister Chris Skidmore calling participation in the programme a “priority and ambition”.

The higher education sector believes the solution to this major flashpoint in the UK’s continuing relationship with the EU is in the Prime Minister’s hands. He could simply say the issue of higher education and research will be dealt with separately from the main negotiations, and that the UK will abide by “third country” negotiations – an EU treaty definition of countries close to it without member status.

“We are hopeful that negotiations on access to EU programmes feature prominently as a key part of the future UK-EU relationship,” says Anne-May Janssen, head of European engagement at Universities UK International, which represents 136 UK universities. “We are seeking a swift decision to be made on the UK’s association to both Horizon Europe and the next Erasmus programme.”

Yet there has been no clarity on either scheme from the government yet, and Conservative MPs voted down an amendment for negotiation of full Erasmus Plus membership, proposed by the Liberal Democrats during the passage of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill in January.

“There remains a great deal of uncertainty in respect of the UK’s future involvement in mobility and research schemes, and also how a future immigration system would support movement of students and academics,” says Janssen.

“Putting universities at the heart of any post-Brexit settlement will help create opportunities for trade, build networks and partnerships and create opportunities to expand academic cooperation, collaboration and exchange between the UK and its EU and non-EU partners,” she adds.

“The negotiations have the potential to impact the relationship significantly. The outcome could affect how collaboration takes place – whether it be research, student exchange, or transnational education.”

The UK university sector represents 1.2 per cent of the country’s GDP, and supports more than 940,000 jobs in the UK. The latest stats show that universities in the UK generate £95bn of the economy’s gross output. Cross-border educational activity is worth almost £20bn to the UK economy, according to Universities UK figures.

Yet Brexit could also impact the quality of people who are willing to migrate to study, or continue studying, in the UK. Since the EU referendum result, there have been countless stories of top researchers and academics whose ability to live and work in the UK has not been confirmed. Just under 11,000 EU academics working in the UK have quit their position in the three years since Britain voted to leave the EU, according to analysis of freedom of information requests reported in the New European last December.

“If you demoralise people working in universities, those who have other choices will make them, and that’s what we’re seeing – it is clear that a number of EU27  citizens have left, including some pretty high-powered people,” says Dr Corbett, who feels the “people level” of the universities’ Brexit woes is “even more important” than the economic hit.

“There’s also the question of who is going to choose to come to the UK now? We’re hearing stories of bright students who have decided to do PhDs elsewhere rather than UK universities.”

There was a 3 per cent drop in the number of EU students enrolling on UK courses in the 2018/19 academic year, with the biggest drop in post-graduate research courses, according to Russell Group data.

“You just can’t underestimate the people aspect of it, particularly in something like education,” Dr Corbett warns. “The higher education sector fought a very bad campaign before the referendum; it was all about money, it wasn’t about freedom of movement and values and all the things that now seem so important.”

Now, the sector is pushing hard for an answer on Erasmus Plus, Horizon 2020 and a future immigration system that will remain attractive to EU students wishing to study in the UK.

“Part of what makes universities lively places is the more unpredictable people choosing to come here, who don’t necessarily have these huge profiles, who then go off and do great things, and contribute to the general atmosphere,” says Dr Corbett.

Without free movement, the UK can’t retain that quality, and there will be no swift and positive outcomes for a sector facing such a combative political climate. “What I think is a great irony is that we have a Prime Minister who boasts his classical education at every possible opportunity, and yet he’s prepared to put higher education and research at risk.”

This piece is part of the New Statesman’s Brexit isn’t done series.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

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