British universities top the world league rankings due to their capacity to attract the most talented scholars across the world. In a country outside of the European Union (EU) and with European staff members full of uncertainties regarding their own legal position in the United Kingdom (UK), some scholars may well decide to move to continental Europe. To complicate matters further is European funding, namely a considerable source of income for British universities that boosts their prestige and their ability to bring the best European academics to British shores. The risk therefore is double: there is a financial risk and there is a professional risk.
Students could be put off going to the UK for their studies and some master’s courses could close, with a loss of fee income expected to be as high as £700 million a year. The consequences of Brexit are widespread and worrisome, with staff already experiencing the fallout from the UK leaving the EU. As the Times Higher Education has highlighted, the UK suffers from a serious risk of “post-Brexit academic ‘brain drain’” as several talented EU academics leave the UK for more certain and stable conditions in continental European universities.
European staff members are a much needed resource for British universities and augment the capacity of universities to publish in top ranking journals and to attract external funding. As the head of policy for the Russell Group (that is, the Ivy League of the UK), Sarah Stevens, commented last month, “the most pressing challenge that Brexit presents the higher education sector is not about money. It is about people.” Indeed, Brexit is a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, top scholars could leave the UK due to several uncertainties regarding employment rights and research funding. On the other hand, a return to key principles of immigration rules could ensure that skilled overseas scholars are properly valued and that long-term international links are strengthened.
A country where almost 25,000 EU nationals work at Russell Group universities in a variety of roles (academic, technical or senior administrative) cannot afford losing the best talent to overseas institutions and to the detriment of its own research and teaching necessities.
Number-wise, Sarah Stevens reminds us that a large number of highly skilled science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) staff work in Russell Group universities. For example, they represent 31 per cent of academics in mathematics and 27 per cent in physics.
In another areas of research and teaching, such as modern foreign languages, Europeans are 37 per cent of the workforce. Indeed, the British Academy has shown that the social sciences and the humanities could be even more vulnerable in terms of brain drain than STEM departments, given that “of the 15 disciplines with the highest proportion of their research funding from ‘EU government bodies,’ 13 are in the arts, humanities and social sciences.”
The damage to the country’s reputation is already evidenced by the fall of British universities in their employability capacity. A ‘hard’ Brexit would be disastrous for British universities and economy. Indeed, calls for openness are a fairly common position among many institutions. A large majority (90 per cent) of academics believe that Brexit will have a negative impact on the university sector, while over 75 per cent of non UK-EU nationals are more likely to consider leaving British academia. With universities risking to have an important share of its EU workforce leave the country and many turn down posts, loss of access to EU funding and research networks will only make it worse for the most prestigious British universities. And this situation will only impact negatively on the knowledge economy in the country.