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British universities prepare for the possibility of a no-deal Brexit

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Universities in the UK are preparing for the possibility of a no-deal Brexit; half of the 75 universities responding to a University UK survey say they are “fully prepared” while 48% say they are “slightly prepared”
  • 80% say they are either “very” or “extremely” concerned about what a no-deal Brexit would mean for their institution
  • Half of the universities said that Brexit uncertainty has already dampened demand from EU students

The level of confusion and concern around the fast-approaching Brexit deadline of 31 October reached a new peak this week. The British Supreme Court ruled that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s suspension of Parliament on 10 September – allegedly aimed at curbing debate or oversight of the ongoing Brexit negotiations – was unlawful. Parliament will now reconvene, and this will reinvigorate an effort among many members to secure an extension to the October deadline. However, the possibility of a no-deal crash out of the European Union remains very real, and the profound level of uncertainty this has caused has already affected the country’s university sector.

Half of the 75 British universities that responded to a recent Universities UK survey conducted to assess the level of preparedness of the sector for a no-deal scenario said there has already been a change in demand from EU students. What’s more:

  • More than 55% said there has been a change in the level of collaboration with international partners;
  • Almost 60% have seen current or potential staff choosing overseas institutions instead of UK universities.

Already familiar with pre-Brexit fallout, British universities have not surprisingly been preparing for the event of a no-deal exit from the EU. All responding universities (100%) said they have made preparations for the event of a no-deal event, with 52% saying they have “fully” prepared and 48% saying they have “slightly” prepared.

The survey explored the type of preparations universities have begun to implement, and found that:

  • 93% have urged EU staff and students to secure pre-settled and settled status (nearly one in five university academics in the UK are from the EU);
  • 90% have initiated conversations with researchers working on EU-funded projects to explain how government will underwrite EU funding;
  • 90% are aware of which Erasmus+ mobility programmes the European Commission will cover and which will be covered by the UK government guarantee;
  • 95% have assessed risks posed to crucial supplies and contracts.

In addition, “some universities have prepared, or considered preparing, stores of essential supplies.

Some university vice-chancellors told the Guardian that they are most worried about “shortages of essential chemicals and gases for their laboratories” and others said they “were looking to stockpile bulk items such as food and toilet paper.”

Concern is high

There is only so much that universities can do to minimise the impact that a no-deal Brexit might have on their operations. Eight in ten universities reported that they are “very” or “extremely” concerned about what no-deal would mean for their institution. Six in ten (61%) said that specific areas of concern are the impact a no-deal arrangement would have on (1) recruiting students and (2) accessing research programmes and funding.

Universities UK’s president and vice-chancellor of Brunel University London, Julia Buckingham, said:

“While the news that universities feel prepared for no-deal in some capacity is reassuring it is clear that the implications of exit under these circumstances remain largely unknown. It is in the government’s power to alleviate many of these concerns. Despite working tirelessly to offset the potential implications of no-deal, such an outcome could leave an indelible footprint on the higher education landscape for years to come.”

Vague assurances

At the Universities UK annual conference in early September, Education Secretary for England Gavin Williamson assured the audience that officials were drawing up “a truly ambitious scheme if necessary” to replace Britain’s membership in the Erasmus student exchange.”

But Angela Rayner, the Labour party’s shadow education secretary, said,

“The new education secretary has been unable to give universities even the most basic reassurance that he has any credible plan. That is why Labour will continue to take all necessary steps to stop Boris Johnson forcing us into a no-deal Brexit that no one voted for.”

A major QS study conducted in 2019 among more than 75,000 international students around the world found that more than a third of students (36%) from other EU countries said they would be less likely to study in the UK because of Brexit. QS notes that,

“This figure suggests the number of EU students ‘at risk’ of choosing a different study destination than the UK is approximately 20,000. The potential loss of such a pool of students poses a significant financial threat to UK universities and would take the number of EU students in the UK down to their lowest levels for at least five years.”

A spot of bright news

Arguably as damaging to the UK’s university sector as Brexit uncertainty has been the significant shortening – since 2012 – of the period of time international students can stay to work in the country after graduating. But earlier this month, the government announced that international students graduating in the summer of 2020 and after would be eligible to stay on for up to two years.

Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK called the extension of work rights “very positive news.” He said that the new policy “will put us back where we belong as a first-choice study destination.”

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