What will the great Brexit brain drain mean for the UK’s universities?

Guest post: The uncertainty over the status of EU nationals following Brexit could lead to many EU academics leaving the UK. The result will be a less culturally rich landscape in our universities, argues Ashlie Rowan, a political correspondent at the Immigration Advice Service


Most of the government’s commentary on Brexit and education has been in terms of the effect it will have on students and funds. While these issues are important, it means that even now, in the later stages of Brexit negotiations, a large majority of the 30,000+ non-UK EU academics living and working in UK universities are still in the dark about their future.

Those that are still here, that is. By the end of last year an estimated 2,300 EU nationals had chosen to leave their UK positions in order to try their luck elsewhere. A 2017 survey by the University and College Union found that 76% of EU academics said they were now more likely to leave UK higher education in search of other opportunities, while University College London has revealed that a staggering 95% of its senior EU researchers have been offered alternative employment by institutions in Europe.

Many EU academics based at UK universities now feel unwelcome. Professor Brian Cox has been quoted as saying: “I know of few, if any, international academics, from within or outside the EU, who are more comfortable in our country now than they were pre-referendum. This is a recipe for disaster.”

The feeling was hammered home for EU academics who decided to make an application for permanent residency. Colin Talbot, professor of government at the University of Manchester, has reported that many received letters from the Home Office telling them – erroneously – that they had no right to be here and ordering them to make arrangements to leave the country. Failing to comply could result in a decision to “enforce” their removal, the letter said.


EU academics are vital to the success of UK universities

EU nationals play a key role in the global status of UK universities. As Cox has pointed out: “UK higher education is a genuinely global industry generating billions in export earnings. Political and industrial leaders from all over the world are educated in the UK.”

Being able to attract the brightest and the best is one of the reasons our universities are so successful – and Europe is a major source of academic talent. If EU academics do decide to leave, then subjects with a high concentration of EU staff, such as modern languages, mathematics, physics and economics, will be particularly egatively affected.

The risk is that UK universities will become more and more insular, less culturally rich, particularly if we see a reduction in collaborative research bids between the EU and the UK.


Government needs to clarify its policy urgently

The government itself appears confused. Prime minister Theresa May makes promises about being “a great, global trading nation”, while continuing to maintain the “hostile environment” she introduced while still home secretary to deny visas to both low-skilled and highly-skilled migrants.

Although the UK government has assured EU citizens currently living in the UK that they are eligible for settled status if they apply before December 2020, we desperately need a straightforward immigration plan past 2021. The government urgently needs to lay out how it intends to maintain the success and high global status of British higher education. EU academics need to know what the future holds for them, so we can stem the tide of talented individuals making the choice to leave.

The worry is that, even with reassurances that they are welcome to remain, the Home Office’s clumsy decision to send out letters ordering people to leave may have shaken that faith, and they may leave anyway. Our further concern is that if universities, as seems likely, receive less research funding after Brexit, many EU academics may decide to leave simply to find better opportunities elsewhere.