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Universities prepare for a "no-deal" Brexit

As the Prime Minister and MPs search for a solution to the Brexit impasse in Parliament, HEi-know looks at what contingencies universities are putting in place for a possible "no deal" exit from the EU.

Universities are preparing for a “no-deal” Brexit by flying students back to the UK early, trying to secure supply chains and identifying contingency funds to cover unexpected scenarios.

As the spectre of leaving the European Unit without an agreement looms large, institutions are ramping up their preparations in an attempt to minimise the impact.

Universities have carried out detailed risk analysis of potential implications in areas such as research and enterprise, staffing – current and future, student recruitment and student mobility, as well as services and finance.

Professor Liz Barnes, Vice Chancellor and Chief Executive of Staffordshire University, said: “Brexit is very challenging for the higher education sector, and the increasing potential of a No-Deal Brexit makes it even more so. We are very clear that we cannot wait for the situation to be sorted out around us. Staffordshire University is preparing as thoroughly as possible with the information currently available and for every eventuality.”

On research, universities are drawing up lists of projects that may be at risk in a no-deal scenario, particularly those that are not covered by the UK underwrite of of the EU’s €80 billion (£70 billion) Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme. For instance, European Research Council funding does not extend to third party (non-EU) participation, which has implications for many institutions.

One of the fears expressed by executive teams is that reassurances on EU funding over and above the Horizon 2020 pledge, such as the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), may fall by the wayside in a no-deal Brexit when pressure on UK budgets increases.

Universities UK (UUK) advice in a recent Brexit webinar is to submit as many grant applications as possible before the exit deadline of March 29.

Paul Van Gardingen, Deputy Pro Vice-Chancellor at Leicester University, said: “What is concerning us is that we have a pipeline of projects that are in preparation that may be at risk. Our approach has been to make sure principal investigator (PI) universities understand the urgency and to get as much of the negotiations over by the 29 of March as possible, and ideally have contracts signed.”

Similar advice on EU staff appointments was also offered by UUK. Any recruitment that is in the pipeline should be brought forward and secured before the leaving date.

At Coventry University, where 15 to 20 per cent of the workforce is from mainland Europe, staff are being given legal advice about status for them and their families.

“We are currently looking at the process around right to remain and how we support staff and make sure it doesn’t cause them any tax issues,” said Ian Dunn, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, student experience.

Staffordshire is also supporting EU staff in line with its understanding of the new EU Settlement Scheme, which looks likely to continue even in the case of a no-deal Brexit.

Modelling for the implications of a fall in EU student numbers is critical.

At Coventry, which recruits about 1,000 EU students a year, the uncertainty of what will happen beyond 2019/20 is a major concern.

“If there is no transition period, then all bets are off and that’s quite difficult to plan for – that’s the worry,” said Ian Dunn.

The devolved nature of HE funding in Scotland adds to the complexity of Brexit planning, particularly in the context of a no deal.  Pushing for reassurances beyond the 2019/20 intake has been a major lobbying priority for universities on both sides of the border.

The Scottish Funding Council grant funded model treats undergraduate Scottish and EU students equivalently, explained a University of the West of Scotland spokesman. “The loss of any EU students through a no deal Brexit could impact on the core government funding for universities in Scotland – and could have subsequent implications for achieving the overall funded student population within Scotland.”

International offices are considering the various scenarios that could be faced by students on EU field trips, placements and the Erasmus+ programme.

At Leicester, the school of geography, geology and the environment has shortened one course to enable students who were due to fly back on March 29th to come home a few days earlier, to avoid any potential travel disruption.

Coventry is making contingency plans in case students coming home for breaks and then returning may require visas. Funding pots are also being set aside.

“We move about 4,000 students into international placements inside and outside Europe each year so we are well versed in visa processes,” said Ian Dunn.” We have always held a significant contingency fund to cover things that happen and that need immediate action. That will be used this year for any Brexit related unexpected eventualities that may arise.”

A lack of details on how the Government underwrite of Erasmus arrangements will be paid, and what will replace the programme in the event of a no-deal Brexit, means universities are working in the dark.

“The UK government has committed to having a replacement for Erasmus but I’m working on the proviso that it could be up to 24 months before anything is operational,” said Paul Van Gardingen at Leicester. “Assuming that existing links run down over the years, there will be a dip around 2021 until things get going again.”

Advice provided through the Universities UK webinar was to submit Erasmus grant applications before the February deadline, regardless of the Brexit machinations, because failing to do so means “ruling yourself out” of any underwrite scheme.

It also urged institutions to explore inter-institution back-up schemes with European universities that could kick-in after the March Brexit deadline.

To help with this, UUK will produce a template, along with a detailed Erasmus checklist, within the next few weeks.

A new technical notice on the Erasmus underwrite and how it will work is also expected to be published by the government in the next few weeks.

Universities are rewriting marketing and publicity materials so they do not break Competition and Market Authority rules and offer Erasmus programmes that are no longer available following a no-deal Brexit.  Similarly, courses that lead to professional qualifications can no longer be advertised as automatically recognised in the EU. An overarching agreement will need to be reached on this point or individual agreements made with each of the 27 EU states.

Procurement, supply chains and stock levels have all been on the agenda in Brexit forward planning meetings.

Leicester University’s procurement team has written to its top suppliers to ask them if they can give assurances over the resilience of the supply chain. Responses from 20 suppliers - with heavy caveats - have come back so far.

The institution is also urging staff to consider the logistics in their own areas of responsibility. “For instance, if you are involved in particular experiments that are ongoing, try to make sure labs have enough supplies,” said Martyn Riddleston, Director of Finance at Leicester. “It’s not exactly stockpiling, as that makes it sound very dramatic. It’s making sure people have thought through the logistics for their own areas and made sure that they have a bit of resilience in their stores.”

Other areas pinpointed by UUK and universities themselves include implications for data flows, currency fluctuations losses, relationships with countries in the European Economic Areas and the implications for universities involved in the EU Creative Europe initiative.

Martyn Riddleston at Leicester, summed up the challenge facing the sector in preparing for no-deal: “It’s very hard to know how to plan. It almost feels like the ‘Millennium bug’; is it going to happen or will things just keep going? It could be either so it is hard to know how much effort we divert from the other very tangible issues we are dealing with to just focus on a no-deal Brexit.”