After the European Union granted the extension to the Brexit process to 31 October 2019, Donald Tusk famously implored the UK, “please do not waste this time.” I will leave it to the discretion of readers as to whether the UK has complied with Tusk’s request. As a sector, we should use this ‘flextension’ wisely by using our influence and expertise to shape the future direction of Brexit and to seek out answers to some unanswered questions in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
Through the work of our Brexit Coordination Group, the University of Sheffield has been preparing for the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, considering issues that may arise if the UK were to crash out of the EU without a deal. We have put in place mitigating actions where we can. For example, to minimise disruption to staff and student travel on or around exit day, to seek to ensure continuity of energy supply and other essential goods and services, and to support colleagues with immigration and visa issues.
The work of Universities UK, in producing a no-deal Brexit readiness checklist, and others has been very helpful in doing this work. We are as ready as we can be and I return to my old adage that we are ‘preparing for the worst, while hoping for the best’.
There is no room for complacency here, and we will continue this work in advance of the new January deadline. This further extension now gives us an opportunity to consider longer-term issues as a result of Brexit.
The University of Sheffield is supporting students and staff on an individual level to navigate the migration requirements through, for example our EU Citizens’ Rights and Brexit Information Sessions. We have done everything we can to promote our international values and to make it clear that EU students and staff are welcome, but ultimately it is government policy that influences migration and it is here where we need to do more and ensure we engage publicly.
In the context of a no-deal Brexit there are issues in relation to the proposed 36-month limit for the European Temporary Leave to Remain scheme. It could present a serious problem for those students on courses longer than three years. Essentially, we will be asking students to commit to a four-year course (with a year abroad or a year in industry or an integrated Masters for example) without knowing whether they can stay in the country for their final year.
Students would be exposing themselves to a great deal of risk. We should be clear that this solution is not good enough; the UK needs to give EU students certainty and be able to guarantee they can stay for the duration of their course and graduate.
We are also taking up the opportunity to influence wider migration policy where we can. The University of Sheffield’s submission to the Migration Advisory Committee’s call for evidence will make clear our opposition to a £30,000 salary threshold for Tier 2 visas. The salary threshold does not reflect the average salary for those working in a range of sectors across the UK and we should be very clear that this would challenge our ability to recruit international talent. On that basis, the salary threshold should be lowered to prevent this from happening.
Universities are open, welcoming and tolerant and we should ensure that our message on migration is clear and consistent. There is a role here for individual institutions and for our representative organisations, like Universities UK, and mission groups, such as the Russell Group, to make sure we are influencing policymakers with that message.
The Government has announced that it will underwrite the grants for outbound Erasmus+ students through its Grants Management Function but the wider implications for our systems of exchange remain unclear. If UK Government cannot or are unable to negotiate being part of Erasmus+ then we need a UK alternative to the programme designed in conjunction with the sector. To provide certainty for students looking to take a year abroad, we should be asking for more clarity on what this alternative programme is going to look like. In the absence of a national alternative, each university will be relying on its own bilateral arrangements with partners which cannot be efficient for the sector.
Just as with Erasmus+, we welcome the Government’s commitment to underwriting successful bids for Horizon funding in advance of what we must now assume will be the new Brexit date of 31 January 2020.
Our goal must be associate membership of Horizon Europe and, failing that, an alternative national proposal that preserves and enhances our research links with Europe. While European grants make up a significant percentage of our research income, those within the sector know that the fundamental part of programmes such as Horizon 2020 is the opportunity it brings for our researchers to collaborate and innovate across different countries. We eagerly anticipate the outcomes of Professor Sir Adrian Smith’s review and will need to pro-actively respond as a sector.
We know that EU students commencing their courses in the 2020/21 academic year will still be eligible for home fee status for the duration of their course but there is no certainty beyond that. Ensuring we are conveying accurate information in our recruitment strategies is challenging while uncertainty remains. Given the further delays, we need to give certainty to future EU students. Lobbying for clarity on their future status will need to begin before recruitment for 2021/22 begins in earnest.
“Get Brexit done” has become a popular phrase for the Government. In reality, this process of leaving the EU is just the beginning of a long debate about our future relationship with Europe and the rest of the world. The higher education sector must be leading that debate. Immigration rules, free trade deals, and research partnerships all have profound implications on how we operate and engage internationally.
Over time we will move from considering no deal issues to how we plan for the longer-term and as senior managers, we need to think about how our universities should adapt to a reality of a post-Brexit higher education landscape. Universities need to work together. We should not be fatalistic that Brexit will mean a smaller and less global university sector. We should instead be using our collective voice, particularly during this period of uncertainty when there is so much left to be determined, to ensure that the outcome of Brexit, whatever it is, is as least damaging as possible to our staff, students and institutions.