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Science, HE and Brexit; negotiating an uncertain road

By Professor Jenny Higham, Principal, St George's, University of London

Posted by Rebecca Paddick | July 08, 2016 | International

Here at St George’s, University of London, we are in a unique position of being the only university in the UK dedicated to medical and health sciences education, training and research. We therefore find ourselves at the crossroads of two UK sectors likely to be directly affected by the referendum result; higher education and science.

The referendum result provides a real challenge for us. Some of our scientists have relied on millions of pounds/euros worth of EU research funding for their important work into infection and immunity, population health, and molecular cell sciences.

The free movement of people within the EU has made it easy for our researchers to travel, collaborate and share ideas with the best in Europe; and for Europe’s brightest and best to find a home here. Science works without borders and its success depends on the movement of talented people and international communities exchanging ideas with common purpose. Healthcare delivery will also potentially experience change – we share the site with St George’s NHS Foundation Trust and many of our staff, including those from the EU, also have clinical commitments.

Our talented students from the EU and the UK benefit directly from those scientists’ cutting edge research and professional expertise. Over 200 EU undergraduate and postgraduate students are currently studying a programme here at St George’s. That equates to around 8% of our student population.

Personally I am disappointed in the result, as are many of my staff and our students. I was one of the 100 co-signatories to an open letter from university vice-chancellors and principals in which we warned that leaving the EU could undermine our position as a global leader in science and innovation, impoverish our campuses and limit opportunities for British people. Given the lack of an obvious post-Brexit plan, I remain anxious we will lose ground, especially as the university sector has been such an important driver of the economy.  

I was one of the 100 co-signatories to an open letter from university vice-chancellors and principals in which we warned that leaving the EU could undermine our position as a global leader in science and innovation, impoverish our campuses and limit opportunities for British people

We have acted quickly to reassure our students and staff that the decision will not have an immediate impact on the immigration status of EU students and staff, or on the UK as a full member of Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+, as the EU Commission itself has confirmed. Horizon 2020 is the EU’s major research and innovation programme with nearly €80 billion of funding available over 7 years (2014 to 2020), in which we currently participate. Erasmus+ is the scheme that allows higher education institutions in the EU to collaborate for study, work, teaching and training, which again fosters good academic linkages. Importantly we have sought to reassure our international partners and students based in Cyprus of our commitment.

But the issue is that we simply do not know how things will turn out further down the road. It is not yet clear what will happen to outstanding and new bids for EU funding. Leaving the EU is likely to affect our ability to compete for EU grants. In 2014-15 according to Universities UK, universities attracted more than £836 million in research grants and contracts from the EU.  It is hard to believe that this will be unaffected once the UK starts procedures to leave the European Union. There are millions of pounds at risk in my own institution. What we are seeing already are changes in behaviour and pessimism about applying for and retaining a lead in European collaborations.

The tightening of immigration rules by a new government could make it harder for students to get post-study work visas and the attractiveness of studying in the UK will be reduced. In the medium and longer term we will fight for our highly skilled expert staff to have the right to stay in the UK and will safeguard our ability to continue to attract the best from around the world. Additionally, the Higher Education and Research Bill is now at risk which may have consequences for fee-raising. The University Council will be discussing the various options and trying to mitigate the possible adverse outcomes as far as they are able.

In the medium and longer term we will fight for our highly skilled expert staff to have the right to stay in the UK and will safeguard our ability to continue to attract the best from around the world

An important representative body, Universities UK, is leading coordination with colleagues in Universities Scotland and Universities Wales and will be spearheading coordination with groups in the wider science and research community in particular, to ensure that responses to Brexit are coordinated. In particular Universities UK is exploring a range of models for future relationships with the EU, and a delegation has already visited Brussels to seek clarification on how to tackle the uncertainty over UK participation in research consortia currently in preparation and extending beyond the timeframe for the UK exit.

Constructively though it is clear that reputation will be key to our thriving in the post-Brexit higher education world. Recent league tables showing that St George’s graduates have the best graduate prospects out of all UK institutions (Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2016 and Complete University Guide 2017), that our research influence and quality of citations is ranked best in the world (THE World University Rankings 2015/16) and that the excellence of our academic teaching is highly rated by our students (National Student Survey 2015), is something we will strive to defend. We will be confirming and looking to strengthen our partnerships with European institutions so that these can continue into the future, even as the context changes.

Not just for our future but to all those individuals and communities who will need our medical breakthroughs, the impact of our science and innovation, and our future generations of doctors, biomedical scientists and research experts. 

W: www.sgul.ac.uk

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