A government report has argued that university staff from EU countries should be guaranteed the right to stay and work in the UK after it exits the European Union, to avoid a shortage of academics.
The education select committee wants urgent steps taken to end uncertainty over the future status of EU academics. MPs also want overseas students to be taken out of migration figures.
MPs estimate that the UK's higher education sector is worth £73bn per year and supports 750,000 jobs.
Professor Catherine Barnard from the University of Cambridge told the committee the university had seen a 14% drop in applications from EU students.
Professor Barnard, a Professor of European Union Law, spoke to us about the potential effects of Brexit on the higher education sector.
What is the general feeling about Brexit among students wishing to study in the UK?
At the moment there’s a high percentage of people holding their breath, waiting to see what’s going to come out of the future negotiations. Our university has tried to offer advice and reassurance – but we can’t reassure anyone comprehensively.
The good news for England, announced last week, is that undergraduate fees for those starting courses this year will be fixed for the duration of their course. So universities will carry on getting good undergraduate students.
What about university staff from EU countries?
It’s trickier from their point of view. Good academic staff in universities are highly mobile, so if they find things aren’t working out here, they can get up and go elsewhere.
Hopefully a lot of them have lives and families here, so the decision wouldn’t be easy. But we risk a ‘brain drain’ if Brexit takes a hard line.
How can we avoid this?
University staff from EU countries should be guaranteed the right to work and live here. They need the right to free movement, because a lot of academic work requires collaboration, which in turn requires easy travel.
We also have post-doctorate students spending time in other institutions across the EU. That must be permitted to continue.
Surely Brexit won’t stop us from travelling?
There is still the possibility of travel, but if it’s subject to strict VISA regulations that will deter people from working here.
Universities in Ireland, Germany and elsewhere are very keen to claim some of the action, if we lose good people in the UK.
Ireland has a line in its budget for ‘Brexit refugees’ and Germany has said it is keen to attract the best students, who currently come to the UK.
What sort of VISA regulations do we want to avoid?
The Tier 2 visas, which are currently used for non-EU nationals. It’s an incredibly bureaucratic and expensive process.
What we hope is that, whatever happens going forward, Brexit will result in a ‘light touch’ regime, rather than the full-on Tier 2 visa system.
What would be the ideal scenario?
A work permit scheme. No more than that. A light touch approach to any migration scheme, with no fee to be paid and no threat of monitoring.
How much is Brexit going to cost the higher education sector?
I haven’t seen any figures which can begin to quantify this just yet. But at the moment there are 125,000 EU students in the UK. If that tap is turned off, and not equally replaced by other overseas students, we will not only lose money but the best staff. It will be devastating.
Any other concerns?
Well the other big question is what’s going to happen about access to ERC (European Research Council) funding? It’s considered very prestigious and the UK has been tremendously successful, getting more funding than any other country. It’s thanks to this pot of money that we are doing some of the leading scientific projects in the world.
Could the ERASMUS scheme be our saviour?
It is possible, because there are non-EU countries which participate in ERASMUS.
ERASMUS (The European Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students) is an initiative run by the EU. It provides opportunities for students to study or gain work experience in a different European country while completing a degree.
It all depends on our negotiations and how hard Brexit is going to be.
Are there any positive outcomes to Brexit?
Some suggest it will encourage international students from outwith the EU – but the UK will have to invest in scholarships and bursaries to get them here. So in the short term, it will cost the UK economy more than we gain.
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