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Martin McQuillan on why the success of Britain’s universities is now imperilled by Brexit

Darkening clouds of post-Brexit Britain will cast our universities into the shadows. - Credit: Caro / Bastian / Topfoto

Universities have much to gain from membership of the European Union and precious little to look forward to as a result of Brexit, says Martin McQuillan

University Vice Chancellors are not by nature an outspoken bunch. When it comes to government policy they tend not to voice their concerns in public. Rather, they prefer to do their lobbying over a dinner at High Table or behind the closed doors of a private meeting with ministers.

However, in the case of the referendum on membership of the European Union, our VCs were one of the more vocal groups that early on pinned their colours to the mast as confirmed Remainers.

103 Vice Chancellors signed an open letter stating their preference for continued membership of the EU. This level of unanimity across a sector noted for its sharply different missions and divided across devolved regions ought to have told us something about the importance of the EU to higher education in this country.

Universities have much to gain from membership of the European Union and precious little to look forward to as a result of Brexit.

Universities have not always done themselves favours in the eyes of the public. While other public services experienced deep cuts during the Cameron and Osborne years, universities prospered on the home front as a result of funding changes that saw undergraduate tuition fees treble and graduate debt rise. Nevertheless, our universities are important. They educate and train 50% of UK school leavers in everything from medicine and civil engineering to economics and fine art. They constitute, by any recognised measure, the second best higher education system in the world (bettered only by the US) and are one of our most successful export industries.

It is thought that UK universities generate £73billion for the UK economy, supporting 380,000 jobs, from Southampton to Sunderland, Swansea to St Andrews.

Higher Education in the UK is no longer a familiar script about the duopoly of Oxford and Cambridge, but is a nationwide success story in which diverse provision across a rainbow sector, supports local communities and UK business in a range of areas from Agriculture and Bioscience to the Performing Arts and Fashion.

However, universities have also been engaged in a long dispute with the previous Home Secretary, a certain Theresa May, over the pre-referendum climate on immigration that saw international students needlessly included in the government’s net migration target.

As a result of restrictions on post-study work visas for graduates, our universities are losing out to competitors in the United States, Canada, and Australia. The dispute saw some universities temporarily loose their right to recruit international students and was a sign of things to come in advance of the Brexit vote.

This campaign against internationalism strikes at the very heart of what higher education is all about and severely hinders our universities’ ability to benefit the nation through the soft power of their global brands. It also robs the UK economy and wider culture of some of the brightest and best students trained in our own institutions, while putting at risk our reputation for fairness and, in the case of 50,000 illegal student deportations, the rule of law.

However, there are other reasons why Vice Chancellors and academics want to remain within the EU. The United Kingdom derives a significant net benefit from research schemes run by the EU. They earn £730million per annum from competitive research funds, close to 7bn euros between 2007 and 2013, about 14% of the entire EU research budget of 50bn euros over the period.

For example, 41% of public funding for cancer research funding in the UK in the last decade came from the EU. That is something the Remain campaign might have thought about painting on the side of a bus and touring around the country.

It has taken universities and consecutive governments a long time to build the academic base of UK universities into the predominant player in European research. British universities lead more EU-wide research consortia than any other country and 50% of our published research is with EU partners.

As anyone with even a passing familiarity with scientific research will tell you, trans-national collaboration is a vital condition of innovation and discovery. To remove UK universities from European research funding would be a tragedy not just for our researchers but also potentially for humanity.

After the referendum result some of our best researchers were asked by their European partners to step aside from funding bids. An embarrassed UK government agreed to underwrite existing long-term EU research grants for British universities but only those awarded before the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, announces his autumn budget.

After that there are no promises on trans-national research collaboration. Universities will have to get in line with everyone else waiting in expectation of the distribution of the mythical billions soon to be repatriated from the EU after Brexit. Only the most naive are holding their breath when the UK currently commits only 0.5% of GDP to research, the lowest in the G8.

Universities also benefit from access to infrastructure funds through the European Regional Development Fund, and there have been some recent significant cases of UK universities being supported through the European Investment Bank. For example, Newcastle University were recently granted a £100m loan for regional growth projects and University College London accessed a £280m loan for redevelopment of the 2012 Olympic site for a new campus.

At this moment in time, despite the repeated claims by ministers that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, no one, least of all universities, actually knows what Brexit means. The uncertainty is damaging as it stops universities planning for the future. Nothing is more uncertain right now than the Erasmus student exchange scheme.

Erasmus, named after the 15th century Dutch humanist, allows students to spend up to a year of their study at another European university. It teaches valuable language and social skills as well as introducing students to other ways of thinking and living. It also allows academic staff to refresh their knowledge in a partner institution.

No less an authority than the universities minister Jo Johnson, younger brother of Boris, praised the scheme, writing in The Guardian, ‘as a student in Belgium and France I was able to brush up on my language skills and experience life in another country. I want everyone to have that chance’. Hundreds of thousands of students have benefited from these exchanges over the course of the scheme. There is no suggestion they will continue after Brexit.

Then there is the question of the future of EU nationals working in the UK after Brexit. The government has refused to guarantee their status, preferring instead to hold the future of 3.5million people to ransom as a ‘bargaining chip’ in as yet undefined negotiations with the European Commission.

There are 43,000 European nationals currently working in UK universities (11% of all staff). Some universities, especially those in London, including my own, simply could not function without the contribution from EU academic and professional staff.

Britain risks a brain drain of staff it has invested years in developing at the UK taxpayer’s expense. Already the EU has made moves to begin the relocation of the European Medicines Agency, currently based in London, culling nearly 1,000 high-skilled, well-paid jobs and an invaluable scientific resource from the UK’s knowledge economy.

Then there is the question of what will happen to universities in Northern Ireland and Scotland, with a possible second independence referendum on the cards. A high functioning knowledge economy requires common spaces not fixed borders.

Universities are currently considering their options as they prepare for a fresh round of lobbying as a paralysed government begins to think about what needs to be thought about in negotiations with the EU. Short of continued full membership of the Union, our universities would prefer membership of the European Economic Area (the so-called Norwegian solution) as the least bad alternative.

Membership of the EEA would ensure our universities have continued access to all the European research and student exchange schemes that they do at present, but they would have no say in setting priorities or shaping the nature of the schemes. It would be like allowing Brazil to play in the World Cup but asking them to leave the room whenever the competition format was discussed.

The UK would still have to pay into the European Union to access the schemes and we might continue to derive a net gain in funding. However, membership of the EEA requires a continued commitment to the free movement of people. As Switzerland discovered recently, any attempt to tinker with this premise will result in immediate suspension from the EU research funding schemes.

The mood music from the government at the moment towards universities is to tell academics to stop moaning and accept Brexit as a ‘global opportunity’. With no promises of alternative funding and the imminent threat to decades long research and intellectual partnerships across the continent, nothing could seem less opportune.

There would be a wilful perversity in encouraging student exchange with Australia and Canada but defunding participation with near neighbours in France and Germany. There is, however, more at stake for universities than access to funds and student opportunities.

Openness is fundamental to the life of the mind. It is key to the success of our universities. It is why generations of students have chosen to study at university. The darkening clouds of a post-Brexit country, which we are told ‘has had enough of experts’, is not an environment in which our universities will flourish.

To continue their successful work, British universities need to have access to the single market of ideas. They must be places that are open to the influx of new thinking, and are capable of disseminating the best of our intellectual traditions to the world. This requires a global ambition for our universities for sure and we are doing much of that work already with international campuses across the world.

However, it importantly also needs a strong and porous relationship to Ireland and the European continent, which have given rise to so much innovation in science, business, art and culture. UK universities without access to Europe are simply unthinkable.

Theresa May, warning about even tougher visa rules for international students, has suggested that universities should think about alternative business models. However, if universities cannot recruit the best students or access the best researchers, they will have to think about a business model in which they would be something other than universities.

Perhaps, as recent panicked proposals from the Department for Education suggests, they should be running grammar schools for the government.

While the various university mission groups will be honing their messages and Vice Chancellors will be preparing their list of priorities for ministers, there is little prospect of the wider academic body heeding the government’s advice to accept Brexit as an opportunity for buccaneering adventure of the high seas of global higher education. Nor should they.

The referendum vote may have been a national cry for help after years of ideologically motivated public service cuts, but to persist with a hard Brexit to appease the provisional wing of the Conservative Party would be an act of extraordinary self-harm. One from which the reputation of our universities might never recover.

Academics are those we trust to do our most difficult thinking. In a world of post-truth politics in which the mendacity of the Leave campaign can pass unchallenged, we will need our universities more than ever.

Universities are not part of a shameless metropolitan elite separated from the views of ordinary folk. Their duty is to serve and educate every community in the land. Our universities have risen generation after generation out of ignorance and poverty.

The reason why UKIP’s poisonous propaganda has not taken root in cities and university towns is because in an educated population lies the ruins of xenophobia’s unthinking agenda.

Martin McQuillan is Deputy Vice Chancellor of Research and Innovation at Kingston University

Are you a student? Tell us how Brexit has affected you. Tweet us @TheNewEuropean or email us

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