Academics – and students – need have nothing to fear from Brexit

Academics – and students – need have nothing to fear from Brexit

So the UK is finally able to lay claim to the accolade of having the top-ranked university in the world, according to the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings, where the University of Oxford has finally claimed the coveted number one spot.

Surely this is a time for a little modest celebration, as Brexit Britain continues to go from strength to strength? Not so, according to Professor Louise Richardson, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford.

She has raised concerns about the levels of research funding following Brexit and the impact this could have on British universities’ continued ability to attract and hold on to the top academic talent from around the world. She also raised the challenge of maintaining the diversity of students at graduate and undergraduate levels coming to the UK from the EU and beyond.

But there is a strong case for a much more optimistic outlook when one considers that the risks are manageable – and the opportunities plentiful – for Britain’s universities in the post-Brexit world.

Perhaps one of the greatest misconceptions over Brexit, particularly amongst younger voters, was that it would spell the end of being able to study abroad in the European Union through programmes such as Erasmus+. Of course, the major flaw in this assumption is that the Erasmus+ programme already includes non-EU Turkey, Iceland, Macedonia, Liechtenstein and Norway as full members.

Of the top 10 ranked universities in Europe, no fewer than six are in the United Kingdom, with a further two in Switzerland. Only two universities in other EU states, Sweden’s Karolinska Institute and Germany’s LMU Munich, make it into the top 10, coming in at 8th and 9th on the list respectively.

Both the UK and the EU benefit hugely from the exchange of ideas and experiences facilitated through Erasmus+ programmes, so there is every reason why this should continue after Brexit. There is no incentive for the EU to cut off its citizens’ access to Europe’s best universities simply to score a minor political point – post-Brexit Britain should be able to retain its full member status with a minimum of complications.

As for language students who study abroad for a year as part of their courses, these schemes are facilitated directly between the British Council and its counterparts in the governments of the participating countries involved. Again, this is not dependent on our EU membership and there is no reason for this to change.

There is no denying that EU students at UK universities do very well out of the Home Student fee status and access to UK student loans granted to them by EU non-discrimination laws, but this comes at a great cost to international students from outside the EU, who are subjected to extortionate fees which can exceed three times the fees paid by home and EU students. For instance, at Oxford, non-EU undergraduate fees can be as high as £30,540 per year, including the additional college fee levied only on non-EU students, compared to £9,250 for EU students.

Combined with the UK’s asymmetric immigration policy as prescribed by EU law, this often results in talented non-EU students being forced to leave the UK just when they have acquired the skills that would be of greatest value to the UK economy, particularly in specialised research fields where a highly technical education is essential.

Leaving the EU will give universities the opportunity to redress this balance, preserving access for EU students whilst ending the ongoing discrimination against highly skilled students and researchers from the rest of the world, allowing the UK to cement its place as a hub for truly global academic excellence.

As with everything else in a market economy, successful research invariably rests to a significant extent on a sufficient supply of funding, and it is this aspect that Professor Richardson has drawn particular attention to, with fears that the loss of £67 million of European Research Council funding would harm Oxford’s ability to hold on to its top academics.

First off, it must be stressed that, strictly speaking, there is no such thing as EU funding – any money received by UK institutions from the EU is simply UK taxpayers’ money in the first place which has been channelled via Brussels before being returned to the UK with strings attached.

Putting aside arguments about rebates and obfuscatory analyses purporting to show Britain as a net recipient of EU science funding, the UK remains a net contributor of over £10 billion a year to the EU budget. If the EU and the UK were to cease all payments entirely to one another tomorrow, the UK would still be able to continue to fund everything currently in receipt of EU funds, from farming to physics, and have an extra £10bn left over on top of this.

The Government has already pledged to underwrite all EU science funding granted to UK organisations before the UK’s official date of departure from the EU, even where the projects continue beyond that date. Beyond the formal conclusion of Brexit, multiple options are available to the UK in terms of how it approaches ongoing participation with EU research programmes, including funding structures.

Should the UK wish to withdraw entirely from EU programmes, the numbers more than add up for the British Government to substitute EU funding for equivalent domestic funding programmes – there is no reason why the Government would undermine the higher education and research sector by allowing its funding to dry up significantly.

If the advantages of remaining part of certain EU framework programmes in terms of enhanced collaboration are judged to outweigh the costs, Switzerland has set a precedent for participation in many EU research programmes including Horizon 2020 on a bilateral basis, via its Euresearch programme. Britain could aim for a bilateral deal on similar terms to this, although this would necessarily entail some level of budgetary contributions.

The UK will, however, have the freedom to pursue bilateral and multilateral research agreements on a much broader scale than it could within the EU, enabling British universities to expand the scope of their collaborations far more widely around the world.

With the rapid pace of technological advancement showing no signs of slowing, global collaboration will be more viable and fruitful than ever, and Brexit offers our universities a chance to seize these opportunities in an ever more global world.