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  • Ahmed Sorour

The Biggest Loser: The fate of British Higher Education under Brexit

Over the course of a few years, Brexit has evolved substantially from a private fantasy to a national policy matter, and, after the damning referendum on June 23, 2016, it has become a conspicuous inevitability. The countdown to Britain’s official departure from the European Union on March 30, 2019 had begun, with each passing month providing ample opportunities for the UK to engage in Brexit negotiations, ensuring that the conflicting issues of sovereignty, security, immigration, trade, and education are dealt with promptly. However, with talks and negotiations constantly at risk of collapse, the UK jeopardies its exit from the European Union through a ‘no-deal’ Brexit, with Brexit buffs touting this scenario as an optimistic prospect, as opposed to a frantic toss-up. A ‘no-deal’ Brexit is, despite the attempts to soften the impact through seemingly improvisational argumentations from Brexiteers, a terrifying prospect, especially regarding its almost-certain devastating impact on the UK’s Higher Education sector.

In a knowledge-led globalised era, the UK’s Higher Education sector exists at the precipice of economic growth and human development nationally, and internationally, through the vital reciprocation of knowledge, resources, and skills. It exists as the everchanging frontier to drive economies forward and give birth to labour market advancements, from nurses, doctors, and entrepreneurs, to engineers, scientists, and civil servants to much more. The British Higher Education’s decades-long integration in the EU has come to stimulate a vital revolution in communications and information, fuelling opportunities in economic development on a local and global scale through the rupture of barriers, space, and time. It exists not only as a means of empowerment and increase in human and social capital, but also as a mechanism in nurturing reliable government structures and international relations. Yet, through the increasingly tangible prospects of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit, such an openly integrated Higher Education sector is under threat of collapse. The uncertainty leading up to the UK’s official exit brings major drawback on first, the collaborative work on the UK’s international research and the levels of both private and public investments into such research; second, it also affects the UK’s status as a destination and source of academic and technical talent, and, tangibly, the ability for both staff and students, nationally and abroad, to access imperative international opportunities.

Indeed, the UK’s ‘Brexit White Paper’, released a few months earlier, proceeds to outline the UK’s plan of action and several objectives for the forthcoming years. The principle of Brexit, according to Theresa May, is to ensure it is equally “principled and practical”. To summarise a 100-plus page document, the main areas of focus outlined in the mentioned paper include (1) the development of a deep-rooted economic relationship between the UK and EU, (2) the halting of free movement and adopting a new immigration system, (3) allowing the efficient devolution of power and constitutional integrity of the UK, especially in regards to a hard Irish border, (4) reclaiming UK sovereignty, and (5) promoting the principles of liberty and openness on a global scale. Despite these main areas of focus, they only come to exhibit the UK’s over-optimism of its situation, without factoring in the truths exhibited through the lack and stalling nature of its negotiations with the EU. Naturally, they fail to consider a course of action in a frightening ‘no-deal’ scenario. The White Paper is, at best, an attempt to maintain a vague semblance of certainty, and, at worst, one that instead fuels uncertainty itself through its non-committal nature, and the lack of detail in what form of partnership with the EU the UK seeks.

This exact vagueness is what threatens the UK’s Higher Education Sector. The UK is phased by the illusion that the Higher Education sector will still receive support from the EU post-Brexit; after all, British universities exist as the higher beneficiaries and recipients of EU funding schemes and research grants. However, the future cooperation remains at risk. Cross-border collaboration has boosted scientific research and advancements through the many existing publications across the UK. The severing of ties without certainty would surely impact the British Higher Education’s research quality and innovation. The boasted principles of openness and excellence through the White Paper are no more than words and ‘hopes’ as opposed to detailed initiatives with concrete courses for achievement. In the meantime, research grants and funds, such as those from the EU Framework Programmes which have been monopolised by the UK’s Higher Education system, would eventually deteriorate without having firm parameters. The European colleagues of the British scientist might feel uncertain in participating in further research in the UK, as the contracts are very much up-in-the-air right now. Any prospective deals would stagnate greatly, mainly because of the possible termination of freedom of movement. The reason why we should worry about it are extremely evident: non-UK academics make up nearly 30% of the Higher Education sector and many are offered less prospects and more uncertainty in regards to their fixed term contracts.

Additionally, the mobility of EU students themselves is also under great threat once with their ability to benefit from both cultural experiences and a world-class education in the UK. It is unclear whether these students would be put under an ‘International Student’ status and what exactly will this entail in terms funding. While EU students make up nearly 10% of the UK’s Higher Education student body, the inflation of student fees would only make the UK a less attractive destination. Whether or not the UK makes a special amendment with EU students, compared to international ones, has not been outlined whatsoever, therefore leaving their status ambiguous. This is further succeeded by the crippling of the long-established Erasmus program in the UK, a system which interweaves both culture and education, allowing British students to study abroad through external opportunities. Not much is said regarding this in the White Paper, other than that the scheme would abruptly end coinciding alongside Brexit. While the UK is reportedly open to exploring some possible successor schemes, this, once again, is not a guarantee of any agreement, as the outright ending of free movement would affect student mobility. These issues only serve to impede the acquisition of foreign talent from across the EU. The mammoth contributions of the EU students to the UK economy would be forfeited, as well as the cultural and educational contributions which are, to say the least, immeasurable in impact. This dilemma functions as a double-edged sword, as the denial of free movement impacts the ability of both UK and EU students to travel and search for academic opportunities abroad. This creates a knock-on effect for other EU states to take advantage of the vacuum left by the UK, by attracting the forgone talent and acting as emerging hubs for research.

It is necessary to appreciate the general international impact of the UK’s Higher Education Sector, equally through research, teaching, and reputation. The general concerns of the Higher Education Sector are not baseless: with stalling negotiations, the nature of the White Paper, and the potential of a ‘no-deal’ scenario creating a perfect storm. However, it is possible to remain at least vaguely optimistic. For instance, through the possibility of a sector-specific agreement to be upheld by all Universities, both freedom of movement and the lifting of labour market restrictions on researchers, staff, and individuals could be allowed. This arrangement would ultimately lead to positive reciprocity amongst EU states. However, the possibility for a sector-wide solution at this scale could be compromised due to quarrels in general negotiations regarding free movement. Brexit’s issue with the Higher Education sector might actually be quite simple. However, THE delays in negotiations leave no space or opportunities for solutions which might only lead to disaster. While long-term consequences are unavoidably indeterminate, much can be done to remedy short-term concerns amongst staff, students, researchers, and universities through confident assurances by the UK government.

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