Cambridge University has warned Members of Parliament that the United Kingdom leaving the European Union “poses a significant risk to higher education and research activities in the UK” and it is anticipating a two-thirds reduction in admissions of students from EU countries.
“In particular we are concerned about the prospect of a ‘cliff edge’ for universities in which regulatory and visa changes have a sudden and damaging impact,” Cambridge University said in its evidence.
The warning is among 190 submissions to the Parliamentary Education Committee as part of its inquiry into the impact of exiting the European Union – or Brexit – on higher education, which were published on Thursday.
The submissions were made by a diverse range of universities, including Cambridge, Sheffield Hallam, University College London and Birkbeck, University of London, businesses such as Zurich, individual students and academics. The scope of the inquiry was not extended to research funding.
Neil Carmichael MP, chair of the Education Committee, said the written evidence from university leaders, academics, businesses and others highlights the degree of concern about the fate of UK universities post-Brexit.
“The evidence raises a variety of issues relating to freedom of movement, including the prospects for recruiting EU students post-Brexit and the future rights of EU staff to live and work in the UK.
“Concerns are also raised about how to maintain the UK as an attractive destination for EU and international students, about the financial viability of universities, and the need to ensure Britain can continue to compete on the international stage as a provider of world-class university education,” he said.
The Russell Group, representing 24 research-intensive universities, said in its evidence that significant uncertainty remains for EU staff and students at UK universities regarding the country’s future relationship with the EU. In the short-term, the government should provide clarification as soon as possible on:
- Confirmation of the continued working rights for current EU staff and their dependants.
- The fee rate and ability to access student loans, grants or other support for EU students (both undergraduates and postgraduates) considering studying in the UK in the transition period before Brexit, particularly those starting in 2018-19.
- Any future changes to the tuition fee rate for EU students post-Brexit, when this might come into effect and reassurance that appropriate transitional arrangements will be put in place.
- Whether students and staff will be able to make applications to the Erasmus+ programme beyond 2017.
The group said the government can further reassure the higher education and research community by providing a strong statement of intent that they will prioritise higher education and research in the upcoming negotiations, with a particular focus on:
- Continued mobility of students, academics and university staff between the EU and the UK without bureaucratic visa burdens.
- Continued full access to and influence over EU research and innovation programmes and infrastructures.
- Continued participation in the Erasmus+ programme.
Fee changes for EU students
Cambridge University said it expects current law, under which it is lawful to charge EU students lower fees than non-EU students, to change after the exit of the UK from the EU.
The university anticipates a fall in numbers – even before any change in fee levels and is already seeing signs of a reduction in numbers of EU undergraduate applicants. Cambridge University admissions data reveals a 14.1% drop in EU applications for admission in 2017, while overall applications were up by 3.2%.
“Assuming that EU students move to the unregulated international rate it is almost certain that application numbers will fall further. We are currently modelling a two-thirds reduction in admissions from the non-UK EU,” it said in its evidence.
University College London, or UCL, warned that should EU student fees rise to the level of international student fees, the UK would lose one of its most significant recruitment advantages over competitor institutions from the United States and Australia.
“Our comparatively modest undergraduate fees, in relation to those in the US and Australia, currently help the UK to attract the most talented students from across the EU. As well as the many benefits to institutions, bringing EU students to the UK results in benefits for the country as a whole.
“EU students make economic contributions to their local communities in the UK, and EU alumni can assist with longer-term trust and capacity building in international relations.”
UCL said an increased fee for EU students could cause a sharp drop in recruitment numbers which would precipitate sudden and significant financial implications for many UK higher education institutions.
It said this would also increase reliance on recruitment from non-EU countries “where we already face stiff competition from American, Canadian and Australian universities to attract talented students.
“As more EU universities begin to teach degree programmes exclusively in English, we can expect this marketplace to become even more crowded.”
Cambridge has urged the government to recognise the economic and educational benefit of free movement of talent and remove international students from any net migration target, and “ensure this issue is properly championed in negotiations around the UK’s relationship with the EU”.
“The majority of participating students at Cambridge are engaged in an undergraduate year abroad and the Erasmus+ programme provides a framework to facilitate these arrangements and help develop wider collaborative partnerships with EU institutions. From a national perspective, this student mobility activity produces essential skills with significant economic value.”
The Education Committee’s inquiry was launched in September and aims to explore the implications of the UK's exit from the European Union for EU students and staff who want to come to England's universities to study and work and will consider what protections should be given to those who are already in the UK. Similarly, it will look at the ramifications for Britons who want to work and study at higher education institutions in the EU.
The committee also aims to examine the effect of Brexit on the reputation of England's universities and ask how they can remain competitive. The future of the Erasmus+ student exchange programme will also be examined as part of the inquiry.
Carmichael said: “In our inquiry, we are determined to examine the opportunities for higher education post-Brexit and consider what the government's priorities should be for the sector going into the negotiations with the EU. It’s crucial that we don’t allow Brexit to become a catastrophe for our university sector. We look forward to testing the evidence and questioning university leaders, academics, students, unions and ministers in our public evidence sessions in the New Year."
Status of EU staff
Cambridge University said the government needs to clarify the status of EU staff working in the UK as a matter of priority, and calls on the government to consider a transitional arrangement to enable UK universities to continue to attract and retain talented European Economic Area and third country staff, and to protect researcher mobility.
In 2014-15, 31,635 non-UK EU nationals were working in UK universities, 16% of the total; 12% of staff were non-EU, the university said. Among its own 2,000 or so staff, the percentage of EU nationals is 17%. Of the university’s 3,000 postdoctoral researchers, around 36% are EU nationals.
In addition, the university urged the government to recognise the value of the Erasmus programme by including continued involvement in Erasmus as part of any agreement over the future relationship with the EU.
The university supports around 150 students a year to undertake study or research placements at partner universities and traineeships with employers across Europe. It receives around 90 students a year to study at Cambridge but also a number of departments accept Erasmus students on research internships and around 10 members of staff travel from Cambridge each year to deliver lectures at partner institutions via Erasmus.
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