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Hard Brexit could be a disaster for the UK's academic sector

Hard Brexit a no-go for academics

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The UK exiting the European Union, as well as leaving the single market and closing its borders to Europeans, would mean a disaster for the academic sector, the Education Select Committee was told by leading academics.

According to representatives of UK universities and research institutions, the so-called hard Brexit could cause a massive brain drain, render the UK’s universities less competitive and make it extremely difficult for the industry to fill qualified positions for which it cannot find enough local talent.

According to Cambridge University Professor Catherine Barnard, UK universities have already seen a drop in applications from European candidates following the referendum vote.

“This year we have seen at Cambridge a 14 per cent reduction in the number of applications from the European Union at undergraduate level, although I should say the number of applications from EU students at postgraduate level are up,” said Barnard.

“In respect of those who have declined an offer from Cambridge at postgraduate level, we have put a question in the so-called decliners survey to say ‘what was it that dissuaded you from coming?’ Those who answered the question offered a range of factors from a concern about anti-immigrant sentiment to devaluation of the pound and uncertainty over future research collaboration.”

Vice-chancellor of Oxford Brookes University Alistair Fitt called the possible hard Brexit “probably the biggest disaster for the universities sector in many years”.

However, he said that withdrawing from the European Union by itself could offer quite a few benefits as long as the free movement remains.

“European structural funding is very important for the UK but the UK, I believe, doesn’t get as much out of it as they put in,” Fitt said.

“Structural funding can also come with quite a few strings attached, can come with quite a few risks and can be quite hard to manage. So, if we were able to replace the amount of structural funding with our own funds, that’s a real opportunity that we could not only retain all that’s best in that system, but actually make it an even better system.”

Alastair Buchan, who oversees the development of Brexit strategy at the University of Oxford, said that some of the damage that the UK academic sector sustained when the country joined the EU could actually be undone after Brexit.

“One of the things that we did lose was that nice and easy flow of clinicians and clinician science from Canada, the US, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa,” he said.

“We had really good collaborations, which hopefully in this Brexit climate might be reinvented, because that movement of English-speaking medicine was actually a casualty of joining Europe.”

Oxford is setting up a Brexit observatory to collect data on the impact of quitting the EU, he said.

The potential hard Brexit would also cut off the flow of skilled and highly qualified workers the UK needs but currently cannot find domestically. According to Engineering Professors’ Council president Stephanie Haywood, there is a need for 40,000 graduate staff in the industry, which need to be taken in from abroad.

“We’re doing lots of things to try to encourage more people to take up physics and STEM subjects, we’re trying to get more women into engineering, but I don’t see these things being very quick fixes and I think it’s going to be very difficult to fill the gap other than by recruiting engineers from overseas, and that includes the EU,” Haywood said.

According to Haywood, only 30 per cent of engineering PhD students in UK universities are British. Postgraduates, however, are an extremely important source of highly qualified workforce for UK industry. With the continuing uncertainty around the pending Brexit, many, especially of the European postgraduates, are considering moving elsewhere.

“I think that the issue we’re talking about here is actually one which requires government intervention and it requires it before the negotiations start,” said Anne Corbett, an associate at LSE Enterprise, who believes hard Brexit could lead to a brain drain.

“I would say that were the government to come out of its kind of purdah, or whatever it’s called, and say that from the start it would be creating a much more positive climate, to assure that EU citizens here were safe, which in the end is helpful all round.”

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