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Thousands of EU academics left posts at leading British universities after Brexit vote, analysis finds

Exclusive: The Russell Group calls on Boris Johnson to provide certainty to staff to prevent exodus

Eleanor Busby
Education Correspondent
Tuesday 13 August 2019 08:38 BST
Prime Minister Boris Johnson repeats his Brexit plans: 'We are going to leave the EU on the 31 October'

Thousands of EU academics left their posts at Britain’s most prestigious universities in the year after the Brexit vote – an 11 per cent rise on the year before, analysis shows.

New figures show 4,280 European staff quit their academic posts at the leading research-intensive Russell Group universities in 2016-17, compared to 3,865 in 2015-16.

Over the same period, the number of non-EU and UK academics leaving the group of universities rose by just 4 per cent and 5 per cent, which is significantly less than the 11 per surge in EU academics quitting after the referendum, the analysis reveals.

Brexit uncertainty has prompted an exodus of top talent from science departments at the elite universities, the Russell Group analysis, shared exclusively with The Independent, suggests.

More than a quarter (27 per cent) of academics working in chemistry departments at Russell Group universities are from other EU member states, but 36 per cent of academics who left a chemistry post in 2016-17 were EU nationals.

The Russell Group is calling on Boris Johnson to provide certainty over the residency and working rights of EU academics ahead of the Brexit deadline of October 31 to stop an exodus.

The proportion of new EU academics recruited by Russell Group universities from overseas also fell from 48 per cent to 43 per cent between 2016-17 and 2017-18, meaning a greater proportion of the EU nationals recruited were already based in the UK.

Overall, however, the number of EU academics working in the UK rose by 4 per cent in 2017-18, although it was the lowest level of growth for more than a decade.

But the Russell Group says the number of talented EU academics leaving British universities could soon exceed the number arriving if action is not taken urgently.

“For any prime minister interested in the health of a sector that is a major national asset, and fundamental to our future economic success, this should be a concern,” the analysis warns.

Dr Hollie Chandler, senior policy analyst at the Russell Group, warned: “With growing concern over the prospect of a no-deal Brexit in October, this issue is not going to go away.

“The longer EU academics have to wait for legal clarity over their immigration status and certainty over the UK’s access to EU research programmes, the more likely it is problems in recruiting and retaining EU staff will intensify.”

She added: “Our message to the prime minister is clear – this situation needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency or EU academics will take their talents elsewhere.”

Rachel Hewitt, director of policy and advocacy at think tank Higher Education Policy Institute, called the data “concerning”.

She said: “Much of the discussion about the impact of Brexit on higher education has been on the impact on students, but the impact on staff at UK universities has clearly already been significant

“EU academics help to make our universities the first-class institutions they are, and they have a particularly critical role in the research we conduct.

“The government needs to take action to ensure that the UK remains an inviting place for talented academics across the world to come to work.”

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Maike Bohn, of the 3million group, which campaigns in Britain on behalf of EU citizens, said: “Brexit has now forced EU citizens to join the ranks of those who need to prove that they belong.

“New administrative and emotional barriers are going up, and this particularly affects academics for whom freedom of movement is often key to their research.”

“It is understandable that many are considering to move or aren’t coming to the UK in the first place,” she added.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “As this report rightly recognises, our universities’ non-UK workforce grew again in 2017-18 and the increasing diversity of our higher-education system is one of the many reasons it continues to thrive.

“We are stepping up our preparations to leave the EU, which includes making sure our world-class universities are able to continue with important research and teaching.

“We are making an unequivocal guarantee to the 3.2 million EU nationals living and working among us, and they will have the absolute certainty of the right to live and remain in the UK.”

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