Universities UK renews call for clarity on Brexit terms

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • The peak body for British universities is calling for greater clarity and policy reform to help position UK institutions during and after the Brexit process
  • A recent policy paper points out in particular that the fee and funding status remains uncertain for EU students planning to begin their studies in the 2019/20 academic year

The UK and European Union reached an important milestone in the Brexit talks last month. On 19 March, negotiators formalised an agreement for a 21-month transition period running from 29 March 2019 until 31 December 2020.

This means in effect that the UK will remain in the European Union until the end of 2020, but with more limited influence. More to the point, as CNBC reports, “Starting 30 March 2019, European laws will continue to apply in the UK, but London will not have any say in decision-making that involves the future of the European Union.”

Because of this trade-off, some aspects of the deal remain controversial within the UK. But one clear implication – and one of particular interest to British educators – is that the UK will now avoid a so-called “cliff-edge exit” (that is, a more abrupt exit) that would have otherwise been required in 2019.

“The transition deal means we will avoid the cliff-edge that many, including universities, had feared,” said Universities UK President Dame Janet Beer.

Universities UK points as well to the continuing importance of the phase one Brexit negotiations concluded in December 2017. That agreement provided for reciprocal rights for EU citizens currently in the UK to retain their rights to live, study, and work in the country, and vice versa for British citizens in the European Union. But phase one also allows for the UK’s continued participation in the landmark Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 programmes through the year 2020.

These at least are important elements of certainty in terms of the UK’s continuing participation in these landmark programmes, and to the standing of the nearly 50,000 EU faculty and staff working in UK higher education institutions today.

Where to from here?

Building on the certainty from the phase one agreements and the additional structure now provided by a 21-month transition period through 2020, Universities UK recently released a new Brexit position paper to set out its priorities for the negotiations still to come.

Dame Janet Beer adds, “Longer term, it is vital that the final Brexit deal secures UK participation, as a full associate country, in the next EU research innovation programme and the successor Erasmus+ scheme. There is also an urgent need to confirm the fee status of EU students starting courses in 2019. EU students are already asking about 2019 study, so it is crucial now that this is confirmed by governments across all parts of the UK.”

This underscores one of the key points raised by Universities UK in its latest Brexit paper: the fee and funding status of EU students for the 2019/20 academic year remains unclear.

The British government has confirmed that EU students beginning their studies in 2018/19 will continue to be charged the same tuition fees as UK students, and will also remain eligible for financial aid, for the duration of their studies.

Those provisions, however, do not extend beyond that point as yet and Universities UK points out that the issue is starting to loom larger: “The UK is host to 134,835 students from other EU countries. Currently, all universities are unable to provide answers to EU students enquiry about 2019/20 entry. We know that 80% of students first register an interest in studying abroad more than 12 months in advance of actual enrolment. With students already enquiring and prospectuses printed for the 2019/20 cycle in early 2018, the need for clarification across the UK is urgent.”

Scotland is the exception in this regard. On 1 February, the Scottish government confirmed the fee and funding status for EU students beginning their studies in 2019/20.

More broadly, and looking ahead to the post-Brexit landscape, Universities UK is also calling for additional policy reform to boost the competitiveness of British higher education globally: “The UK must develop a new, post-Brexit immigration policy that encourages all suitably qualified international students to choose to study in the UK. This includes enhancing the post-study work opportunities for qualified international graduates, as many of our international competitors have been doing to improve their student visa offer.”

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