By Dr Simon Sweeney, University of York
On June 24th the UK woke up to a referendum result few had anticipated. The Leave campaign did not expect to win, and the Remain campaign, led so ineffectually by Stronger In, had believed winning was a certainty. Why else did they allow the two most despised politicians in the UK, Cameron and Osborne, to lead the campaign for the opening ten weeks?
Some, including me, saw the result setting in train a right-wing coup, a coup without tanks, and with little opposition. Stronger In switched to being pro-Brexit, arguing for the best outcome from leaving. Conservative MPs, who had mostly backed Remain, meekly accepted the result, acquiescing in the government line. The mantra became ‘people voted to leave’ and so the government must accept the result, even though the ‘people’ was only 52% of a 72% turnout. Labour remained hopelessly divided, so the coup faced precious little opposition.
Within hours of the vote, Cameron quit to write his memoirs as failed politicians often do. Within days, Teresa May replaced him as Prime Minister and appointed three hard line Brexiteers to lead the divorce from the EU. Six months of argument followed over what kind of Brexit was intended, but on Tuesday 17th January at Lancaster House May affirmed that Brexit means no Single Market and probably no Customs Union either.
For UK universities this is a far worse outcome than the sector had expected. Higher education contributes £73bn annually to the economy, 2.8% of GDP and 757,000 jobs (2.7%). It brings £10.7bn in export earnings, distributed throughout the UK regions. Universities also make a huge cultural contribution to the country, so economically and culturally the threat to the UK is immense, a huge self-inflicted harm. Universities are loci of cross-cultural exchange, repositories of knowledge, seats of learning, critical thinking and analysis, and crucibles of cosmopolitan values and internationalist perspectives; Brexit risks undermining all of this. Many Leave voters may loathe the EU, but a considerable number also reject immigration and free movement, a foundation stone of the Single European Market (SEM). The Leave campaign demanded to ‘take back control’ of borders. But UK universities, like many industries, depend upon free movement of labor and the attractiveness of the UK to talent from abroad. In rejecting SEM membership, the government has prioritised immigration control over economic and cultural interests.
UK access to the European Union’s flagship student mobility programme, Erasmus+, will be dramatically affected once Brexit happens, presumably in Spring 2019. Erasmus+ has benefited 85,000 UK students on study and work placements, and staff too can take up exchange opportunities. The government says participation after Brexit ‘depends on negotiations’. Meanwhile, the UK already seems less attractive post-referendum. The elite Russell Group universities are concerned about falling applications from EU students. Cambridge reports a 17% drop in EU applications for 2017 and is planning for two thirds fall thereafter.
Many institutions fear a loss of access to talent in recruitment. There are reports of British universities struggling to attract European Economic Area (EU plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) applicants to teaching and research posts, and a University College Union survey says 42% of staff considering leaving the UK, many fearing cuts in research funding. Almost half said they had colleagues who had already lost out on funding bids. Other EU member states may tempt academics away from the UK, especially EU nationals, currently 13.6 percent of senior lecturers.
Brexit sends a negative message not just to 27 EU partners, but to the entire world. Lord Bilimoria, the founder of Cobra beer, has attacked the government’s failure to remove students from net migration figures. He urged the Vice Chancellors’ group Universities UK (UUK) to insist on free movement for students and working visas for non-EEA graduates, as happens in most of Europe, and in Canada, Australia and the USA. Worryingly, the Higher Education Policy Institute reports Home Office plans to place fresh restrictions on overseas students, which it claims could cost the UK £2bn a year.
Threat to research
The impact on research could be dramatic. UK access to Horizon 2020, the EU-funded research programme for 2013-20 worth €80bn, will surely be compromised once the UK quits the EU and ceases to make contributions to the budget. Even if access is allowed, the UK will have to meet its full share of costs, whereas now Britain receives the second highest amount of support after Germany. UK-based researchers get 25% of European Research Council and Marie Curie funding, by far the most. Individual research projects like the Euro-Ewing Consortium, which includes several UK universities researching Ewing Sarcoma, a childhood cancer, could be threatened if it loses its EU funding.
Much research is collaborative. About 60% of approximately 120,000 research articles published annually by UK-based authors are co-authored with international partners, over half based in the EU.
Government assurances, including the Chancellor’s autumn statement which promised extra support for Research and Development, do not allay anxiety in the academic and research community. Reduced funding, restricted access to talent, and potentially visa requirements imposed on EU-nationals, will have a catastrophic impact on UK universities. Such changes will undermine the UK’s industrial base and the reputation of our world-class universities. If the UK turns inwards post-Brexit it will degrade the international appeal of our campuses. The distinctive participatory teaching and learning styles and the resource-rich nature of our publicly owned institutions, and even the decline in value of sterling which mitigates the high tuition fees, will continue to attract students in the short term. But against this, visa restrictions and an impression of a Britain turning away from its nearest neighbors will damage the appeal of the UK as a destination of choice for students and academics.
If research funding has to rely more on the private sector, science and technology may attract corporate support, but businesses will want quick gains and ownership of research outcomes. Blue sky research, so often responsible for major breakthrough discoveries, will lose out. Talented people will not come or will leave. Arts and the humanities will certainly suffer, being deemed ‘uneconomic’ by government, despite the creative sector contributing even more to the UK economy than does higher education.
Social science research, which often highlights things the government might prefer remained out of the public gaze, will surely suffer severe neglect with enormous social costs. Brexit will degrade universities’ contribution to public life, civic culture, research, and the economy. The quality and often unique character of UK universities is under threat. It is vital that Parliament recognise this. As the great Spanish painter Francisco Lucientes y Goya warned, The sleep of reason brings forth monsters.
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