- UK universities are raising the alarm over the risks associated with an exit from the EU without a new deal in place
- One British think tank projects that EU student numbers will drop by more than half under this scenario
- Other university leaders are concerned that a loss of EU research funding will curtail UK innovation and scholarship, and even put some institutions at risk of closure
An open letter from five higher education groups in the UK – Universities UK, the Russell Group, Guild HE, Million Plus and University Alliance – says that the prospect of a no-deal exit from the European Union “is one of the biggest threats our universities have ever faced.”
The higher education bodies, which collectively represent more than 150 institutions across the country, cite the uncertainty facing EU students in the UK (130,000 at present), UK students studying elsewhere in Europe (15,000), and the 50,000 EU academic staff in UK institutions to underscore the scale of the issue for British higher education.
The so-called “no deal” scenario – under which the UK would leave the EU without a new agreement in place – began to loom even larger this week. In a historic 15 January vote in the British parliament, Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposed Brexit deal (as negotiated with the EU) was soundly rejected. The path forward for the government, and the country, is anything but clear. But as it stands now Britain is on course to exit the EU on 29 March and there is no deal in place to govern the country’s new relationship with the rest of Europe.
“It’s a huge systemic shock coming, and we’re all at risk of it, and the uncertainty is really hard to deal with,” says John Board, dean of Henley Business School at the University of Reading.
Research and funding at stake
British education leaders anticipate a more difficult path to recruiting and retaining European faculty, and a greater challenge in recruiting EU students to study in the UK. Sir Anthony Seldon, the vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, said recently that a no-deal Brexit, “Will make the recruitment of students only more difficult and it is insane for the country.”
Even now, the 24 universities in the Russell Group are reporting a 3% drop in EU student numbers in the most recent intake, a decline that they attribute to the uncertainty around the Brexit process.
Absent a Brexit deal, the 130,000 EU students in the UK will soon require study visas and sponsorship oversight from their host institutions, an additional administrative burden, the Russell Group has cautioned, that is both “unrealistic and unsustainable” for its member institutions to take on. In any case, the outlook for EU enrolment under a no-deal scenario is fairly dim. The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) has forecast a nearly 60% drop in EU enrolment if Britain “crashes out” of the EU without a deal in place.
Beyond that crucially important movement of students and faculty, the universities’ open letter also highlights the importance of continuing access to EU research funding. By some measures, UK universities have become increasingly reliant on European Union funding for research and they are now “seeking confirmation that the government will replace research funding sources from which we may be excluded at the end of March.”
“We are home to one of the best research systems in the world, attractive to stellar academics, top students and global partnerships, and we must not let this be compromised by a no deal Brexit,” said Universities UK President Janet Beer. “Time is running out to make decisions on issues which will ultimately affect the country and society as a whole. Without cast-iron assurances, world-leading academics and researchers may leave for countries where access to [EU] funding is not at risk, and those currently considering relocating to the UK may think again.”
Speaking to The Independent, HEPI Director Nick Hillman said that the uncertainty will likely place the future of some British institutions at risk: “I do think a small handful of universities could get close to the wire this year. But there are many shades of grey between being solvent and going bust, including takeovers, mergers and bailouts. No British university has even gone bust. It could happen for the first time this year.”
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