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Diversity is a strength of the UK’s higher education sector - but it could prove a weakness in the Brexit negotiations if institutions and mission groups pursue conflicting agendas and fall victim to “pernicious language’, according to Nick Hillman, the Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI).
As university leaders re-visit their strategic plans and seek new ways to pursue them post-Brexit, Hillman says leaving the EU will affect institutions differently, but they need to speak with one voice to defend the whole of the sector that contributes £73 billion a year to the UK economy and generates at least 750,000 jobs.
Already we see “divide and rule” in the Government’s recent decision to relax the immigration rules for post-graduate students at just four universities, he says. “The sector shouldn’t allow the government to divide and rule. It should stand united, as one, otherwise the concept of a national higher education system will be at risk.”
“The Home Office has always been keen on the language of welcoming “the brightest and the best” from the rest of the world and we shouldn’t let them get away with it. What they mean by “the brightest and the best” are PhD physics students at Cambridge, they don’t mean everyone who meets the standard to get into a British university,” he says. “It’s a pernicious use of language which could lead to liberalising the rules for what the Government sees as prestigious (science based) universities and a toughening of the rules for everyone else,” he adds.
Hillman says his starting point is as an optimist. “I think some of the fears about what will happen once we leave the EU have been overdone because we don’t actually know what our relationship with Europe is going to be. It is plausible that even if we have a full Brexit we could continue to be in the European research area and Erasmus. I’m not saying it will happen but it is possible,” he says.
The UK is the one of the top five destinations for Erasmus students, for example, receiving twice as many as it sends abroad. Therefore it should be able to put up a strong case for continuing to be part of the scheme once it leaves the EU. And while there are reports that academics are already finding themselves less likely to be invited to be part of EU-funded research projects, some leading commentators, such as Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, the President of the Royal Society, say Britain’s strength in science research is not dependent on EU membership. Speaking at the EuroScience Open Forum in July, Sir Venki said there were people in his lab from all over the world and what science needed was a streamlining of visa rules to make it easier for students and academics from across the world to come to the UK.
The indications he had received were that the British Government would fill in any gaps in science funding left by the loss of EU grants. “The message I am hearing back is that the Government is very committed to making sure that the UK science spending is protected. What I take that to mean is that if we were to lose EU funding they would eventually restore it,” he said.
Worries over research
However, university leaders do not all share his optimism. Professor Nick Talbot, Deputy Vice Chancellor for Research and Knowledge Transfer at the University of Exeter, says thinks it “inconceivable” that the UK government would take up all the slack.
“Is it credible that the €8.8 billion in funding received from Horizon 2020 could really be found from the UK Government, given the other political imperatives and other unfunded promises already made to the NHS and other public services?” he asks.
If alternative competitions for research funding could be devised then there would need to be mechanisms to collaborate and exchange staff and students with EU countries, says Professor Talbot. “This could happen through schemes such as the ERA-NETs operated through the Research Councils, but we would need guarantees on access to these pan-European mechanisms in order to prevent huge damage to our science base. Moreover, we have over 23,000 EU nationals working in Russell Group universities alone, who would want access to EU funding schemes, or they may consider the UK sub-optimal as a research base. This is potentially, hugely damaging to the university sector. We also have over 58,000 EU students in Russell Group universities to whom we need to make some assurances about the research base that will exist and their rights to stay within it.”
The EU funds more than 800 research infrastructures that are important resources for research, ranging from particle physics to literature, and six major Pan-European Research Infrastructures are headquartered in the UK, he points out. Then there is the risk of losing membership of the pan-European Unitary Patent that the UK worked hard within the EU to establish, he says.
“We must avoid the UK being ejected and having to file individual patents for access to EU member states. This would be disastrous to UK science base and industrial base, but has hardly been mentioned in any discussions to date. I hope somebody is thinking about this in government, because they need to,” he says.
The UK has three main options if it wants to continue to access EU research projects, he adds:
The UK needs to negotiate hard for full associated country status, but it will be quite tricky to negotiate as part of the Article 50 discussions.
Amid such uncertainty, the think tank MillionPlus is urging a re-drafting of the Higher Education and Research Bill that has completed its second reading in the Commons and is heading for its committee stage in September. Pat Tatlow, its Chief Executive, believes it will be a tall order to expect institutions to manage both the impact of the Bill and Brexit.
“It creates risks and we expect ministers in DfE, BEIS and the new Trade Department to work with universities to maximise opportunities and the promotion of UK higher education and science in the Brexit negotiations and beyond,” she says.
Not everyone wants the Bill delayed, however. Professor David Petley, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Enterprise at the University of East Anglia (UEA), says uncertainty can be very damaging and delaying the Bill would only add to it. “We need to get on with business as usual,” he says.
The Brexit vote has provided an opportunity to reflect on the role of UK research both in terms of UK society and the nature of collaborations, he adds. “Research and development must be a cornerstone for the development of the UK economy over the next century and we will need a research environment that creates and exploits opportunities. There is no doubt that deeper, better engagement with the best researchers around the world, not just in Europe, is going to be vital. This will require a highly strategic approach at the national level.
“The opportunity to be involved in EU funding schemes is a mechanism that enables the European component of this strategy. If this is not possible, and some of the challenges of continued involvement look to be very difficult, then there will be a need to explore other ways that these collaborations, which allow high quality research that address societal challenges, can be enabled. The UK economic and industrial strategies will be damaged if it is not possible to develop and sustain research with world class partners across the continent,” he adds.
Impact on student recruitment and mobility
On the question of the status of EU students coming to a non-EU Britain, Hillman says it will be up to universities to decide on fee levels. “The sector needs to decide whether in a Brexit world it wants to go on seeing Europe as more special than the rest of the world. Do we continue to charge students from France £9,000 compared to international fees of £15,000 for students from Brazil or China? This is within their power to decide.”
Hillman thinks it is possible that UK universities could rely on their reputations to continue to attract students from the rest of Europe if they start to recruit more aggressively, as they do in countries such as India and China.
But if the fees rise too much for EU students then the UK could end up not with the “brightest and the best” but with the richest - and this is a concern for some universities.
Professor Kathryn Mitchell, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Derby, says it is not just about fees but about the message going out to the rest of the world. “Once the UK leaves the EU, then EU students may have the same Tier 4 immigration status as those from the rest of the world. It seems difficult to perceive a way around that unless you class them as home students, but then that wouldn’t be ‘Brexit’. So the sector has to get its head around this and make sure we get the message out that EU students are still very welcome to come to the UK, even though I don’t know yet what that welcome will look like in terms of fees or student status,” she says.
Professor Mitchell says she is concerned about the effect of Brexit on her university’s strategic plan to provide its UK students with an opportunity to study with international partners or work abroad as part of their degrees. “Lots of Derby students haven’t travelled extensively and we believe we can provide the experience of living in a different culture through other EU countries, which is also less expensive for them than further afield,” she says. “It’s important for us because we have found that students who gain experience abroad perform better in their degrees and are more confident about going into the workplace.”
Professor Petley says that so far there have been no signs at UEA that EU students are less likely to enrol. “Whether that will change in the medium-term is a question to which we don't really know the answer. The UK is still an attractive place to come to study, not just because we have a very strong university sector but also because English is a lingua franca, and many students from other countries do want to study or undertake research in English-speaking countries. Clearly we are watching the situation closely,” he says.
Universities UK says it is calling on the Government to takes steps to ensure that the UK can continue to participate in EU research collaboration and funding programmes. ”In terms of recruiting EU staff in the longer term, any changes will depend on the kind of relationship the UK negotiates with the EU. However, UUK is committed to highlighting the value of all EU staff, including researchers, scientists and academics,? and is urging the UK government to guarantee that those currently working at UK universities can continue to do so in the long term,” it says. “UUK is also calling on the UK government to make a clear and unequivocal statement that EU nationals currently living in the UK are welcome here, and that any changes to immigration status will only apply to new entrants to the UK,” a spokesman said.
Perhaps even harder for university leaders to address is the perception abroad that the UK has voted to go it alone and is unwelcoming to foreigners. Speaking from Beijing on a research project jointly funded by the National Science Foundation of China, Professor Talbot said the perception in the rest of the world that the UK is withdrawing from international work because of pressure over immigration is an enormous difficulty. “I am being asked here in China if the UK will continue to allow students and staff to come from countries outside the EU. The signal to leave has sent powerful shockwaves across the world that we will have to work hard to counter,” he said.
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