MPs warn against Brexit brain drain of EU academics

Brexit could damage the international competitiveness and long-term success of United Kingdom universities unless the government addresses specific concerns within the higher education sector, a new report by the parliamentary Education Select Committee has warned.

Neil Carmichael MP, chair of the Education Select Committee, said: “Higher education in the UK is a world leader but Brexit risks damaging our international competitiveness and the long-term success of our universities.

“It’s welcome that EU students have been given some guarantees on their funding and loan access but the government must act urgently to address the uncertainty over EU staff and avert the risk of a damaging ‘brain drain’ of talent from our shores.”

Guarantees have been given to EU students starting in 2018-19 about tuition fee levels remaining the same throughout their course. But no reassurance has been given to EU staff about future residency rights. This is needed urgently – and the government should react to any delay in reaching a reciprocal agreement by unilaterally guaranteeing rights before the end of 2017, the report says.

It recommends that during the Brexit negotiations the government should seek to secure continued involvement in the European Union’s research programme, Horizon 2020, and its student and staff exchange programme, Erasmus+, but have contingency plans for equivalent domestic funding and a homegrown exchange scheme in case its efforts fail.

In addition the government should set up a regional growth fund to replace investment from European structural funding and should ensure that higher education plays an important role in upcoming trade deals with the rest of the world, the report says.

“The government should pursue collaborations with major research nations and invest further resources into existing collaboration funding,” the Members of Parliament or MPs said.

To ensure the country remains open and welcoming to talent, the government should remove overseas students from the net migration target, the report recommends.

Carmichael said: “As we leave the European Union we now have the opportunity to reform our immigration system to ensure we reap the full rewards of the ability of our universities to attract the brightest and best students and staff from across the world."

The report concludes that UK’s impending exit from the EU “has created significant uncertainty as links between our universities and those on the Continent run deep”. But “by following the steps we recommend, the government will ensure that higher education in our country can deal with the challenges of leaving the EU and be in a position to take advantage of local and global opportunities.”

Responding to the House of Commons Education Select Committee report on the impact of Brexit, Alistair Jarvis, deputy chief executive of Universities UK, said: “The committee is right to identify European staff, immigration policy and research collaboration as priorities for universities as Brexit negotiations start.

“The government should seek to secure continued close collaboration with EU research partners and also provide certainty for EU staff currently working in UK universities in terms of work and residency rights. Changes to our immigration system are also needed to ensure that the UK remains a destination of choice for international talent and students.

“As large and complex organisations, universities plan for years down the line, so it is important that we receive clarity of the government’s positions on these crucial issues as soon as possible.”

Maddalaine Ansell, chief executive of University Alliance, which represents universities for cities and regions, also stressed the need for certainty that EU staff will be able to continue to work at UK universities and that its “world-leading researchers can continue to collaborate with the best in the EU".

“Higher education is one of the UK’s leading sectors and this should be reflected in the government’s priorities during the Brexit negotiations,” she said.

“Structural funds are essential to support job-creation and growth in all parts of the country, often underpinning collaborative work between universities, regional and local authorities and employers. As University Alliance has argued, this funding needs to be replaced as the UK leaves the EU, and reshaped as a British Growth Fund.”

Politics at play

Experts on the politics and policies of Europe and higher education, Anne Corbett and Claire Gordon, both of the London School of Economics and Political Science, told University World News if it were not for politics, it would be entirely possible for the UK to continue to participate in both Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+, which are both highly valued by the higher education sector.

Leaks from Brussels suggest the EU negotiators would like to keep the UK in both programmes, especially in research, where the UK participation enhances research standing.

However, Corbett and Gordon, who provided joint evidence to the committee, warned that the final terms will not be decided by the negotiating team members but at leader level between British Prime Minister Theresa May and the EU 27 leaders, and high-level political deals are “rarely entirely rational”, so “much will depend on the mood in which negotiations take place”.

They said a key problem is that May’s predecessor as prime minister, David Cameron, left government without a contingency plan for a 'Leave' vote.

A contingency plan for higher education to replace what would be lost by a British exit needs to consist of three elements:
  • • Investment of the same level of funding as was received from the EU under Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020;
  • • A guarantee to underwrite any Erasmus+ placements under threat in 2019 (which has already been pledged); and
  • • Readiness to create a replacement mobility programme starting in the academic year 2019-20.
The government will also have to create a new regional growth fund to replace investment from the European Structural and Investment Funds, since under present rules the UK, after leaving the EU, could not participate in the fund’s programme, which supports regional cohesion.

It has been argued that this money could easily be found from money saved by no longer paying into the EU budget, but that would depend on whether there is the political will to ring-fence the money saved for that purpose.

UK policy-makers have not in the past been keen on the European Structural and Investment Funds, which have been allocated according to need and have therefore gone for the most part to the poorest countries of the EU, Corbett and Gordon said.

“But Brexit forces a rethink. So a UK regional growth fund might be an additional resource for universities and an incentive for a bigger and more structured place in local economies.”

Facilitate movement

In their report the MPs say that the immigration system after Brexit should cater “more particularly for the needs of higher education”.

“It should facilitate, rather than obstruct, movement of people from and to our universities.”

The report said an easier route for academics from across the globe to come to the UK, with less bureaucracy than the current ‘Tier 2’ system, is necessary.