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Higher education’s wish list for Brexit

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Universities UK has set out five priorities for the now-underway Brexit talks
  • The association is placing the emphasis on a new agreement for residency and work rights for EU academic staff at British universities, and on the UK’s continued participation in European research and mobility programmes

The official Brexit negotiations began in Brussels earlier today, after another surprising result returned a minority Conservative government in Britain’s 8 June general election. Prime Minister Theresa May had earlier called the snap election with the goal of strengthening her government’s majority, and, by extension, the UK’s negotiating position in the Brexit talks.

However, the surprisingly poor showing by Ms May’s Conservative Party means that she will hold on to the PM’s chair only through a coalition with Northern Ireland’s centre-right Democratic Unionist Party. The government’s weakened position has led many observers to the view that the Brexit talks will now likely depart from the so-called “hard Brexit” that Ms May had foreshadowed before the election. Under this approach, Britain would leave the single European market altogether, and likely with no concessions regarding movement of people between the UK and EU.

However, the reality of the minority government position may introduce some cracks in this hardline position. As an editorial in The Independent noted earlier today, “From the outset, [lead UK negotiator] Mr Davis must accept that the outcome of the general election makes a hard Brexit impossible. Leaving the single market, which seemed likely even a matter of weeks ago, is no longer a given. That, at least, is a relief since the impact on the UK economy would have been appalling.”

“With a much weaker hand to play, it is imperative that the Government makes clear as early as possible that it will secure the rights of EU citizens already living in this country.”

Universities weigh in

Late last week, Universities UK released a new briefing paper that sets out the position of Britain’s higher education institutions on the Brexit process.

“As Brexit talks begin, it’s important that the voice of universities is heard clearly in the negotiations,” said Universities UK President Dame Julia Goodfellow.

“The election result showed the need for an optimistic approach to Brexit that is outward-looking and internationally-minded…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. British universities are the antidote to the UK’s Brexit challenges.”

The Universities UK paper sets out the five priorities for the now-underway exit talks:

  • An agreement for residency and work rights for EU nationals currently working in the university sector, and their dependents
  • Continued UK participation in the EU’s Horizon 2020 research programme
  • Participation in Horizon 2020’s successor: Framework Programme 9, which is due to start on 1 January 2021
  • Continued access to EU student mobility programmes, most notably Erasmus+
  • Provisions for the ongoing recognition of professional qualifications between the UK and EU member states

The higher education association points out as well that the stakes are high, for British institutions and also for visiting scholars and students. Nearly one in every five academic staff (17%) at UK institutions are from other EU countries. And more than 125,000 EU students are enrolled within the country’s universities.

“Through exit negotiations, the UK Government must ensure that the UK continues to welcome, with minimal barriers, talented EU students and staff,” added Dame Julia. “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.”

Assurances to students

The British government has already moved to guarantee current tuition and financial support provisions for EU students beginning their studies in 2017 and 2018. This means that students beginning in either year will maintain their current tuition status (that is, they will pay the same tuition fees, and have access to the same financial aid programmes, as domestic students).

However, what happens after that 2018 commencement window remains an open question and this uncertainty appears to have already had a chilling effect on EU enrolment in the UK.

Applications from EU students are down by 7% for the coming academic year, marking the first drop in nearly a decade of steady growth.

Looking ahead, a recent analysis from the Higher Education Policy Institute projects that any move to charge international fees to EU students could reduce EU enrolment by nearly 60%, with a direct loss in tuition fee income of £40 million per year (US$51 million).

Impact of change in tuition fee policy for EU students in Britain. Source: London Economics, HEPI

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