UK universities need a bespoke Brexit deal

The fate of British universities – their research, their European staff and their students – has become a major issue following the EU referendum. Under the home secretary’s proposals, they would be classed as employers with a large number of non-UK staff – 17 per cent of teaching and research posts are occupied by EU nationals. They would be hit by hiring restrictions and the introduction of a work permit scheme. And students would be affected by any student visa scheme.

The research income which UK universities receive would also take a knock. My university, Cambridge, receives 17 per cent of its research income from the EU, for example, and more from the European Research Council (ERC) than any other in Europe, while also benefitting from the EU’s Horizon 2020 funding programme. No wonder that the Education Select Committee has called for evidence on Brexit’s impact on higher education.

Of course, it is not a one way street either. British academics gain from working in institutions in other EU countries, and students benefit from studying abroad. The Erasmus programme has seen over 200,000 British students study for up to a year in a European university.

It isn’t surprising that those in the university sector, and beneficiaries of a university education, tended to vote stay in the EU, as research by Goodwin has shown. But these individuals also formed part of the elite many Leave voters saw as the cause of their problems, not the solution. A special deal for universities is not going to find favour with them.

What kind of relationship with the EU would be best for universities? In the short term, providing a right of residence for all EU nationals working in the UK would offer some reassurance. Post withdrawal, taking the Norway option by joining European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and then the European Economic Area (EEA), would deliver the closest thing to the status quo – membership of the Single Market, but not the customs union, access to research funding, and the Erasmus programme. This would allow EU students to continue to study in the UK and British students in the EU, while EU academics and researchers would continue to work in the UK on the same terms as at present.

However, this arrangement, while the most attractive for universities, has already been rejected by the Prime Minster, as has the more tailored Swiss option. Norway and Switzerland have to accept free movement, pay into the EU budget, and accept EU rules without formal involvement in their adoption – all of which, we are told, would be unacceptable to the British people.

A Canada-style free trade agreement would not offer the free movement of academics, researchers and students that universities would like. Rejoining the WTO as an independent state will not deliver this either.

The best that universities can hope for is a bespoke deal. This might include free movement of academic researchers and greater flexibility for migration of students coming from the EU, at least for those going to well-established institutions. Universities hope that the Tier 2 and 4 visa regimes do not apply because the bureaucracy is already onerous for non-EU students and academics. Voluntary contributions to the Erasmus budget and future research programmes like Horizon 2020 might give academics working in the UK the chance to participate in these arrangements.

The negative effects are being felt – even before Article 50 has been triggered. While students commencing courses in 2016 and those applying for 2017 are guaranteed home fees status and access to loans and grants for the duration of their course, the position of those considering entry in 2018 is far less clear.

The risk that they might be reclassified as overseas students will deter applications from Eastern Europeans, for whom a doubling of fees may take up the family’s annual income. Reports of a 41 per cent rise in race and religious hate crimes since the vote hasn’t improved the UK’s image.

German and Irish universities are working hard to attract the best students who have traditionally come to the UK. There is also a risk that if access to the highly attractive ERC grants is denied, academics will move to where the money (and prestige) is. They will go before they are pushed. The EU will lose out as well because it needs the UK to help sustain excellence in the EU research system.

As for law, my own discipline, the prospects are not good. The demise of EU law will be a lost opportunity to the students to learn about a very different, evolving legal system, though competition will function very much as is, given the extra-territorial effect of EU competition law.

Other effects will be more intangible. If the City declines in importance, there will be fewer job opportunities for our graduates. And if English law ceases to become the choice of law for major contracts, and London is no longer the chosen place of jurisdiction, the brilliant Australians and New Zealand students who come in large numbers for graduate work may decide to go elsewhere.

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