No Deal Brexit and the Threat to UK Universities

With every passing day - and they seem to be whizzing by now – the likelihood of the UK leaving the EU without a deal, known as a ‘no deal Brexit’, is increasing. For the large majority, the prospect of this is nightmarish. In the event, it is widely understood that there would be a number of inevitabilities: the economy would slump, possibly crash; many businesses would flee, and with them whatever tax receipts they hadn’t yet evaded; and the Tory hard right would sit back and revel. That only a handful of MPs and a slither of the broader population actually desire this, testifies to the failure of parliament, and more so, the failure of government in dealing with the negotiations. For two years, it has concerned itself with little else, shelving manifesto pledges to deliver the country here, to the now. And the situation, to put it lightly, is a shambles.

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No Deal Brexit and Threat to UK Universities

The threat to universities

Last week it was the turn of the universities to express their horror at a possibility of a ‘no deal’. An open letter from five higher education groups, including the Russell Group and University Alliance, described its consequences, unequivocally, as the ‘biggest threat’ UK universities have ever faced. As of January 2019, the bodies collectively represented 50,000 EU staff and 130,000 EU students in the UK, along with 15,000 UK students studying on the continent - all, they stressed, now face a future fraught with uncertainty. 

For some institutions, the threat posed is an existential one. With the number of EU students predicted to fall as much as 60%, and a potential loss of an estimated €1.3bn of European Research Funding, certain universities could be forced to seek government bailouts to stay open. In such a scenario, the government's response remains uncertain, the current signs, though, look far from positive. Just two months ago, the Office for Students (OfS) declared that universities that were not financially sustainable would not be bailed out. Evidently, the mantra ‘too big to fail’, a favourite of the banks, doesn’t seem to apply to educational institutions.

Failing finances

These predictions, too, come at a time when British universities are already feeling the pinch. Earlier this year regulators warned that many stood on ‘the brink of a credit crunch’, having embarked on ill-advised borrowing sprees designed to boost student intake. The sector’s debt is reported to have risen to £10.8 billion, more than three times what it was prior to the financial crash. And now the fear is that ‘no deal Brexit’ will be like dousing an already dangerous looking fire with a can of petrol, while simultaneously knowing that the fire service is on strike.

To make matters even worse, university closure, if it does happen, is likely to be regionally uneven and will help exacerbate existing inequality. As Vice Chancellor of Buckingham University Sir Anthony Seldon has warned, “The ones that will close will be in the areas of greatest social and economic need. The damage that will do will be immense to the social fabric of this country and the economy of those regions.” So far, there has been little reassurance that measures will be taken to prevent this outcome.

Government response, or lack thereof

Rather, the common response, when there’s been one, has been a reminder of the government’s adherence to the principle ‘science knows no borders’ and the promise that Brexit will not jeopardise this. Yet, with only the Horizon 2020 funding guaranteed, this has for some time sounded like empty rhetoric. The maxim itself, though, is informative, recognising that scientific research would be among the worst hit areas in the case of ‘no deal’. For instance, projects involving the development of cancer treatments and the combatting of climate change are widely expected to be compromised.

Certainly, vice-chancellors remain unconvinced the requisite measures will be implemented, and are seeking ‘cast-iron guarantees’ that European Research Council and Marie Sklodowska-Curie funding, in particular, will either be protected or replaced. Without, they fear academics and researchers, and those considering relocating to the UK for academic purposes will rethink. This would disrupt essential research networks, and in the process, further dis-incentivise research in the UK. Vice-Chancellor of Warwick University, Stuart Croft, has suggested this would eventually even affect British nationals, and force them to ‘think hard about their positions.’

The wider concerns

The projected brain drain would hit the economy too, at a time, which - if post-Brexit forecasts are anything to go by - it will likely already be floundering. Currently, the university sector contributes £21bn to UK GDP every year and supports almost a million jobs, making the potential problem, as university heads have put it, ‘critical to the national interest’. It would constitute, they say, ‘an academic, cultural and scientific setback from which it would take decades to recover.’

Alongside the NHS and BBC, British universities are among the UK’s most prized possessions. Their history of innovation and breakthrough has accounted for countless advances in the natural sciences, technology, and medicine, and has pushed boundaries in both literature and the arts. Their legacy is everywhere and unavoidable.

For the UK to achieve the thriving post-Brexit future it craves its universities will have to play an integral role - their protection, thus, is imperative. Assurances must be given so that, regardless of the political outcome, regardless of in-party fighting, personal opportunism, and all we have come to expect from the political classes, the most damaging effects on British higher education can be kept to an absolute minimum. Britain’s future relies on it.

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