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Post-Brexit planning in the UK: tighter controls for EU students; hope for continuing research collaboration

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • A leaked Home Office position paper indicates that tighter immigration controls could be on the way for EU students in the UK
  • Another official position statement outlines the government’s ambitions for continuing research and innovation collaborations between the UK and EU

The British government’s post-Brexit ambitions for higher education are becoming a little clearer thanks to a recent combination of leaks and official position papers.

The Guardian published a leaked Home Office document last week that argues for new controls on EU students after the UK leaves the European Union.

The document is marked as “Draft – Official Sensitive” and so it is not clear how closely it will reflect eventual government policy in this respect. However, the paper expresses a clear concern on the part of the Home Office that planned moves to control labour mobility from the EU will lead to increased abuse of the student visa system. “Therefore,” the draft argues, “we may need to introduce some restrictions to ensure students are genuinely intending to study in the way that we do for non-EU students, by checking academic ability, English language skills and sufficiency of funds.”

Overall, the leaked draft reflects a view at the Home Office toward increased labour mobility controls, with the continuing goal of limiting net migration to the UK. As such, the leak pours some cold water on the hope that international students might eventually be excluded from net migration statistics. This idea received a boost only last month when another Home Office report found that nearly all foreign students (98%) leave the country before their visas expire.

This new data led the UK’s Office for National Statistics to conclude that “there is no evidence of a major issue of non-EU students overstaying their entitlement to stay,” and prompted Home Secretary Amber Rudd to commission a comprehensive study of the impacts of foreign students on the UK economy. This work now takes on a new significance as any such new research could prove to be an important curb on the government’s interest in stricter student immigration controls.

Let’s research together

Also last week, the UK Department for Exiting the European Union released an official position on collaborative research with the EU. Collaboration on science and innovation: a future partnership paper calls for a new agreement to govern collaborative research activity.

The paper notes at the outset that, “The UK wants Europe to maintain its world-leading role in science and innovation, and will continue playing its part in delivering shared European prosperity. It is the UK’s ambition to build on its unique relationship with the EU to ensure that together we remain at the forefront of collective endeavours to better understand, and make better, the world in which we live.”

It is in large part, however, more of a catalogue of current UK-EU collaborations and of the contributions of British institutions to research and innovation in Europe – as opposed to a proposal for a new model going forward. Critics have been quick to respond, including the lobby group Scientists for EU which characterised the paper as, “devoid of any suggestions for bridging Brexit obstacles and developing this partnership into the future.”

Even so, continued participation in European research and mobility programmes is a key priority for British higher education as the Brexit process unfolds, and some have also seen the paper as a hopeful gesture that the government shares this interest.

“We welcome the Government’s commitment to maintaining collaboration on research with our European partners after we exit, and to continuing to attract the brightest minds to the UK’s universities,” said Universities UK Chief Executive Alistair Jarvis. “The best way to achieve this is for the UK government to negotiate access to, and influence over, the next EU research and innovation programme.” (editor: That is, the successor programme to Horizon 2020.)

Dr Tim Bradshaw, acting director of the Russell Group, points as well to an underlying conflict between the government’s interest in mobility controls and its hopes to protect or renew collaborative research agreements with the EU: “Scientific excellence is dependent on excellent people. Ensuring EU nationals have the certainty they need to plan for a future studying or working in the UK is essential. We want to ensure students, academics and other university staff feel welcome in the UK and valued for the hugely important contributions they make in the classroom, on campus and in their local communities.”

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