Of all the tweets I saw the morning of June 24th, the one which lingers long in my memory was a picture of an empty lecture theatre bearing the caption “meanwhile at the 9am EU law lecture”.
In reality the issues for universities arising from the Brexit vote are much wider than whether they continue to teach EU law as part of their law degree syllabuses. The issues affect almost every aspect of university life from student numbers (and funding) to staff mobility to EU research funding and collaboration opportunities.
Whatever happens in the long term post Brexit– the biggest issue currently facing universities is the uncertainty and the impact that has the ability of both students and universities to plan for the future.
EU student recruitment
Students are understandably concerned about applying for and starting courses now, which they may not be able to finish or which might cost them significantly more (with no or reduced financial support) before they can graduate. The Higher Educations Statistics Agency (HESA) reported in 2014/15 that studying in UK universities were 78,435 undergraduate students and 46,230 post-graduate students from the EU (excluding the UK). This equates to 5.5% of the total student population (8.9% in Scotland where EU students are eligible for free undergraduate education in the same way as Scottish students). If EU students planning their futures look for more secure and less risky alternatives elsewhere in the EU and consequently do not take up their places for the next academic session – this could leave UK universities with an immediate shortfall (although many of those places will probably be taken up through clearing by UK students, assuming of course they have the academic grades).
The bigger issue is probably the longer term recruitment of both students and staff. Approximately 14% of academic staff in UK universities are nationals of other EU member states. Free movement of workers was probably the key “political” reason for the Brexit vote and will be a fundamental issue in negotiations to secure our Brexit. If ultimately the politicians agree a deal which does not include free movement of workers the reality is that leaving the EU will reduce the numbers of academic staff from elsewhere in the EU coming to the UK due to the challenges (real or imagined) of securing a visa. True, as with the students, those roles could be backfilled by UK nationals but the question will remain as to whether UK universities are able to attract and retain the brightest and best especially against a background of talented researchers ‘following the money’ to the EU and elsewhere.
Alongside the potential threat to university finances from reduction in student numbers is the far bigger threat from the removal of EU funding, with the BBC recently (on 5 July) reporting that European academic bodies are already pulling back from research collaboration with UK academics due to the uncertainty about what the future may hold. (The decline in EU student numbers may in any event be overshadowed by the reintroduction of controls on student numbers which may occur if, (as is widely feared) the country goes into recession.) The optomists amongst us might suggest that the Government will redirect some of the money it is no longer paying to the EU into the Higher Education sector but in times of recession, there will be many other claims on that funding (not least the NHS who may not, we now discover, be getting the whole of the EU contributions but is likely to get at least some of that money).
So the UK Higher Education sector is (like the rest of the UK economy) facing very uncertain times. The key difference for the sector is that it can’t continue to say, as many businesses are doing, “it is business as usual” unless or until the button is pushed on Article 50. Universities are long term organisations and no longer have that luxury, now that European Academic bodies have effectively pre-empted the Article 50 process and started their own separation process.