Brexit could push UK universities 'off a cliff edge', major committee report warns

A fall in the number of EU and international students choosing to study in the UK as a result of Brexit could cost economy more than £690m per year, says Education Committee chair

Rachael Pells
Education Correspondent
Thursday 08 December 2016 10:02
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Neil Carmichael chaired the House of Commons Education Commitee report into the effects of Brexit on higher education
Neil Carmichael chaired the House of Commons Education Commitee report into the effects of Brexit on higher education

Brexit poses “major challenges” to the UK’s higher education system, and could push the reputation of British universities off a “cliff edge”, leading academics and influencers have warned.

Written evidence published by the House of Commons Education Committee has highlighted concerns from 190 individual groups and education representatives, following an inquiry into the impact on the higher education sector following the referendum result.

University College London (UCL) warned that Brexit created a “heightened reputational risk for UK education as a whole”, while Cambridge University’s submission warned of a “significant risk” to research in the UK.

A number of submissions called on the government for better transparency over how non-UK staff might be affected by Britain’s move to leave the EU.

A statement from the London School of Economics said: “The uncertainty that the post-referendum Brexit debate has created is of significant concern to LSE. In particular, the lack of clarity over the future immigration status of non-UK EU nationals affects approximately one-third of our current academic and administrative staff.”

The publication comes amid growing fears within the higher education sector, as the future of funding remains uncertain.

In the months following the referendum vote, European researchers predicted a 15 per cent loss in staff members as EU academics seek better job stability and opportunities in Europe.

At a national demonstration last month, attended by thousands of students, lecturers and researchers, Prime Minister Theresa May was warned by union leaders to “stop using EU staff as pawns” in the Brexit negotiations.

Cambridge University’s submission said that “Brexit poses a significant risk to higher education and research activities in the UK”, adding: “In particular we are concerned about the prospect of a ‘cliff edge’ for universities in which regulatory and visa changes have a sudden and damaging impact.”

The institution warned of “serious repercussions” for Britain’s global status, particularly if EEA academics and researchers were denied free movement and required to apply for visas.

“Without adjustments to the immigration system to accommodate the needs of the higher education sector, it is difficult to see how the UK would be able to easily and immediately replace the skills capital represented by the talented EEA and international postgraduates and researchers that play such a central role in the UK research community,” the university warned.

Around 10 per cent of Cambridge undergraduates come from other EU countries, but the university revealed that applications from the 27 remaining member states have fallen by 14 per cent this year.

The university is one of a number of institutions preparing for a reduction in admissions from the EU of two-thirds following Brexit.

Speaking on the publication of the report, Education Committee Chairman Neil Carmichael said government action was needed to ensure Brexit was not a “catastrophe” for the university sector.

The Conservative MP for Stroud said: “This written evidence from university leaders, academics, businesses and others highlights the degree of concern about the fate of UK universities post-Brexit. The evidence raises a variety of issues relating to freedom of movement, including the prospects for recruiting EU students post-Brexit and the future rights of EU staff to live and work in the UK.

“Concerns are also raised about how to maintain the UK as an attractive destination for EU and international students, about the financial viability of universities, and the need to ensure Britain can continue to compete on the international stage as a provider of world-class university education.”

Writing for The Times, however, Mr Carmichael said the “damage” to industry may have already been done. “Britain’s international reputation and attractiveness to EU and international students is suffering because of a perceived unwelcome atmosphere,” he said.

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A survey submitted to the inquiry by Hobsons shows 43 per cent of prospective students said Brexit had affected their decision to study in the UK – with most of those adding the results had made them less likely to want to study here.

“Even by conservative estimates, this could cost Britain more than £690 million a year in lost fees, which will instead go to the likes of the US, Canada, Australia and Germany, among others,” Mr Carmichael added.

Among the statements submitted for evidence, UCL called for the Government to make up lost EU funds, which it said would require “a significant increase in the proportion of GDP invested in higher education”.

The Russell Group also urged the Government to further reassure the higher education and research community by providing a strong statement of intent that they will prioritise higher education and research in the upcoming negotiations.

Questions are left unanswered over the continued mobility of academics, EU research and innovation programmes as well as the Erasmus + exchange scheme, the group said.

EU citizens from outside the UK currently make up almost a quarter of maths students at Russell Group universities and more than 20 per cent of academic staff overall.

“If the numbers of EU undergraduate and postgraduate students were to decrease as a result of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, it is not necessarily the case that they could be replaced easily by UK nationals (particularly in the short term), given the low year-on-year growth of UK students at our universities,” the Russell Group added.

Within its evidence submitted for the report, the British Council said: “The UK is at its best when it is an open, positive, and internationalist country that looks outwards and engages widely. The priority following the EU referendum must be to urgently step up the UK’s efforts to engage with Europe and the wider world, and create a stronger Britain in the world. This will be fundamental to reaching the trade agreements and other partnerships we will need for the future and to secure our future global influence, as well as creating a helpful backdrop to the discussions on leaving the EU.”

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