Vice-chancellors set out priorities for Brexit talks

Ahead of the formal start of Brexit talks on Monday, university leaders have said that the United Kingdom's world-leading university sector should help shape the negotiations and that UK universities provide the “antidote to the UK’s Brexit challenges”.

Dame Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of the University of Kent, said: “As Brexit talks begin, it’s important that the voice of universities is heard clearly in the negotiations.

“The election result showed the need for an optimistic approach to Brexit that is outward-looking and internationally-minded. The UK has one of the strongest university sectors in the world. Our universities’ international links are central to our impact and success. A thriving university sector, that drives local economic growth and builds global connections, will be key to the UK making a long-term success of Brexit.”

The Brexit talks will go ahead on Monday, despite fears of delays caused by the UK’s inconclusive general election results, which left the Conservative Party without a majority and now negotiating with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland to secure support for a programme of government.

There has been much discussion by political observers over whether the fall in Conservative seats and the dramatic increase in the Labour vote, backed by former ‘Remain’ voters from the referendum in many places, particularly London, will force Theresa May to seek a ‘soft’ Brexit rather than complete withdrawal from the Single Market and Customs Union.

May had campaigned on a slogan of ‘No deal is better than a bad deal’ and prioritised bringing down immigration, which appeared to leave no room for staying in the Single Market. Labour campaigned on putting protection of jobs ahead of controlling immigration numbers in the negotiations but has not taken a clear line against a hard Brexit.

The vice-chancellors’ body published a set of five priorities for exit negotiations on Saturday:

  • • Agree the residency and work rights for EU nationals currently working in the university sector, and their dependents, including full access to public services;

  • • Secure continued UK participation in the EU's research and innovation programme Horizon 2020 until the end of the programme;

  • • Negotiate UK access to, and influence over, the Framework Programme 9 – the next research and innovation programme – ensuring it maintains a focus on excellence;

  • • Secure continued access to Erasmus+ and the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions mobility programmes;

  • • Preserve and build on regulatory and standards equivalence with other EU countries, including continued recognition of professional qualifications between the UK and EU member states.

Dame Julia said the challenges of Brexit for the UK’s universities are well-known. Currently, 17% (33,735) of academic staff at UK universities are from other EU countries and there are more than 125,000 EU students studying at UK universities. In terms of research collaboration, the UK is one of the main players in the EU's research and innovation programme Horizon 2020.

“Through exit negotiations, the UK government must ensure that the UK continues to welcome, with minimal barriers, talented EU students and staff. They should also make sure the UK can continue to access valuable and collaborative European research networks and programmes as well as Erasmus+ and other mobility programmes.

“The most urgent priority for the negotiations is to provide certainty on work and residency rights for all EU staff currently working in UK universities.

“We have already seen a small dip in the number of applications from EU students this year, so it is important that the UK projects the message globally that we are open and welcoming to international talent. There is now an opportunity to make sure that a reshaped, post-Brexit immigration system encourages talented international students and staff to choose the UK.”

Central role

In a briefing on the priorities for Brexit negotiations and policy development, Universities UK said as the government looks to minimise the turbulence and maximise the opportunities associated with leaving the European Union, British universities have a vital contribution to make to a successful, dynamic and internationally competitive post-exit United Kingdom.

“Universities can play a central role in driving inclusive economic growth locally, regionally and nationally; improving productivity as part of a new industrial strategy; and strengthening our international trade and diplomatic relationships across Europe and the wider world.”

Universities generate an annual output of £73 billion (US$93 billion) for the British economy and contribute 2.8% of UK gross domestic product. They generate more than 750,000 jobs and around £11 billion of export earnings for the UK annually.

“The positive contribution of UK higher education to the UK economy and society will be greatest if British universities are magnets for international talent, are welcoming to international students and are leaders in international research collaboration,” the briefing says.

Concerns for universities posed by the UK exiting the European Union include:

  • • Increased barriers to recruiting talented European staff;
  • • Damage to international research collaboration;
  • • Increased barriers to recruiting European students;
  • • Loss of funding for research and innovation;
  • • Reduced outward mobility opportunities for staff and students.

The briefing says that to ensure that British universities can maximise their contribution to a globally successful UK, the right support is needed from government to address these concerns, and outlines what the UK government should prioritise, in three stages: short-term transitional arrangements, exit negotiations, domestic policy change.

Short-term objectives, in addition to confirming rights of EU nationals, include confirmation that EU students starting a course in 2019-20 will continue to be eligible for home fee status and eligible for loans and grants on the current terms.

This would effectively be a transitional arrangement since that academic year starts after the deadline for EU withdrawal (31 March 2019) and is needed because 80% of students first register an interest in studying abroad more than 12 months ahead of enrolling.

A signal is also urgently needed on whether the government will seek to secure continued participation in Horizon 2020 to address the problem of those bidding to be partners not knowing if they can include a UK partner.

Reaching outside Europe

In the exit negotiations Universities UK wants the government not only to secure ongoing participation in Horizon 2020 and its successor (Framework Programme 9) but also to develop new collaborative funding arrangements and “enhanced support with both European partners and major research powers outside of Europe”.

It also wants the government not only to maintain access to Erasmus+, which supports 55% of current student mobility, but also to couple that with “enhanced investment to grow other international mobility opportunities”.

The briefing warns that leaving the Single Market could mean that the UK is no longer covered by the Professional Qualifications Directive, which could in the long term reduce the value of certain degrees, as prospective EU students considering studying in the UK would be left without a safeguard in relation to transferability of the qualification. Therefore, this area must feature in Brexit negotiations and in any future trade deal with the EU, the briefing says.

Among the policy changes demanded by university leaders are a better immigration regime for international staff, that is simpler, less expensive and less bureaucratic; a simpler visa scheme for international students; and enhanced support for international research collaboration to incentivise partnerships with other powers such as the United States, India and China.

Other demands include increased public investment in research; enhanced mobility opportunities for UK staff and students, and the setting of a quantitative target for UK students having outward mobility; replacement of European Structural and Investment Funds with alternative domestic funds to support innovation and drive economic growth; and improved regulation and infrastructure to make the UK the “best place in the world to do science and research”.