Pembroke Brexit panel warns MPs over higher education

The Commons Education Committee held its first evidence session on the impact of exiting the EU at Pembroke College today. MPs heard that freedom of movement, research collaboration, and EU funding were vital to the success of UK universities, and that their continuation or replacement was crucial. They were also told that a “hard Brexit” would be the “biggest catastrophe” for higher education in the UK.

Leading figures in academia from around the UK were at pains to stress what they saw as the immense value of collaborative projects carried out with EU partners. Prof Alasdair Buchan, incoming head of Brexit strategy at Oxford University, warned that the consequences of moving from a talent pool of 600 million people to one of 60 million could be detrimental. It was also pointed out that a quarter of scientific papers produced in the UK are done in collaboration with other EU universities.

Dr Anne Corbett said, “when you look at what is produced you have to ask if Cambridge is doing what it’s doing, or if Oxford is doing what it’s doing, alone. And the answer is, it’s not…so you have to look very sceptically at the idea of going it alone.”

Worries were also expressed about the status of EU students and staff. Prof Buchan told the committee that 15% of Oxford students and 17% of staff are from the EU. MPs were told that only 30% of engineering postgraduates are from the UK.

“You have to look very sceptically at the idea of going it alone.”

The Vice-Chancellor of Brookes University, Prof Alistair Fitt, said that these students could not easily be replaced domestically due to a demographic dip in the number of 18-20 year olds, and that arduous immigration procedures meant that the gap could not be filled by students from further afield.

Advice on the issue of funding for universities was more varied. It was made clear that a large proportion of funding came from the EU, with Prof Lyndal Roper stating that the Oxford Humanities Department alone would lose £17 million if all EU funding was cut.

However, Prof Fitt was of the opinion that the UK would be able to provide sufficient funding for its universities. Speaking about EU structural funding, he said “the UK doesn’t get as much out as we put in”, and of the Erasmus exchange program he said “that is something that we could consider funding ourselves”.

Concerns were voiced about the possibility that talented students from the EU were already beginning to avoid UK universities. The committee heard that the number of EU applicants to UCAS was down 10% this year, and Prof Catharine Barnard of Trinity College Cambridge said that she had seen EU applications to her college fall by 14%. She said that surveys indicated that perceived increases in anti-immigrant sentiment and the depreciation of sterling were reasons for this.

The panel were also worried that other nations would try to poach resources and talent from the UK. Prof Barnard said that the UK was currently “the tall poppy” but that Germany was “snapping at our heels”, and pointed out that Ireland had recently allocated budget resources to attracting “Brexit refugees”.

While the panel was particularly vocal about its concerns about Brexit, it was also careful to note the opportunities that leaving the EU could entail. The focus was mainly on the possibility of looking more globally for opportunities to recruit talent and pursue collaboration.

While the panel was particularly vocal about its concerns about Brexit, it was also careful to note the opportunities that leaving the EU could bring about.

Prof Buchan said that great benefits could be gained from re-establishing the flow of clinical students from other English-speaking countries. The panel also stated that current arrangements were not fair on Chinese and Indian students, and that they should be given a better deal once the UK left the EU. Prof Barnard was keen to stress that the current UK visa system is unacceptably “cumbersome”, with a Tier-2 academic visa costing around £450.

Discussing the government’s negotiations to leave the EU, the panel said that “what we need is some kind of reassurance.” They said that what happened to academia in the UK would ultimately be determined by political imperatives, and were concerned about the extent to which the EU wanted to “send the message that you can’t have your cake and eat it”.

Dr Corbett said that the government needed to move away from talking about hard and soft Brexit, and instead focus on an “intelligent Brexit”. She called for the government to consult academics on all aspects of exiting the EU, asking, “What sector is better placed to put forward ideas than the higher education sector…something that could change a bit is the atmosphere, to really make the government more daring in the negotiations.”

The Education Committee will be holding further inquiries at Northumbria University and UCL.