UK universities and Brexit – are we ready to leave?

However well-prepared individual universities are, there is a huge amount only Government can do – and where they have yet to act, says UUK’s Vivienne Stern

The possibility of a no-deal Brexit has been on the cards for more than a year now and big question marks remain over the consequences for UK universities and their students.

The central question is whether Prime Minister Boris Johnson can do what Theresa May failed to do on three separate occasions and get a deal that politicians can agree on through Parliament. Can he deliver what this country – and universities – needs: a deal to leave the European Union.

Numerous public and private sector organisations are facing similar uncertainty. Whether it be disrupted supply chains, limited access to skilled employees, or huge costs associated with preparing new legal agreements and insurance arrangements as a result of exit.

Universities face many of the same challenges, but they also face some very specific problems which may not grab the headlines but, in the long term, could have significantly damaging consequences, not just for universities but for the economy as a whole.

Since the referendum vote in June 2016, Universities UK (UUK) has worked with universities, the UK Government and our European partners on planning for the future. Universities are critical to the national interest, our economy and wider society. From the start, we have taken the view that, rather than sit on the sidelines and complain about Brexit, we should work hard to make sure that we mitigate its potentially damaging consequences, and look for the opportunities where they exist. With that in mind, universities have been working tirelessly to prepare for Brexit – as well as the likelihood of no-deal – for many months, and where they can act they are doing so.

No-deal contingency planning has involved a vast amount of work. This is one occasion when I can honestly say that I will be delighted if it turns out to be wasted effort.

So, are universities ready for a no-deal? What are we doing and what still needs to be done?

I will divide the current position of the sector into three categories: what universities can mitigate by taking pre-emptive action between now and October 31, what the government can decide and implement in that time, and the attitude of the other 27 EU member states.

On the first point, UUK has compiled a list of FAQs for universities on the implications of Brexit for institutions and students and how it will affect EU students. An action plan for universities is available on our website and advice from members – our ‘no-deal’ planning taskforce which will shortly reconvene.

In some cases, steps can be taken to avoid problems. For example: a no-deal would mean that the UK was (temporarily at least) outside the scope of the EU-wide data protection system, and personal data flows from the EU to the UK would be restricted. Working with lawyers, we have drafted model legal clauses which universities can use to get around this problem as they renegotiate the hundreds of contracts that will be affected. We have provided shared resources on other topics too, like student exchange agreements.

However, there are many areas in which universities have to look to Government to make decisions or take steps to avoid the damage that a no-deal would cause. We have made our recommendations to Government clear, releasing a no-deal briefing document summarising the actions those in power must take, but now we can only wait as Boris gets his feet under the desk at Number 10 before he arrives at the ‘Universities’ folder in his mound of Brexit-related documents.


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Damage to our world-leading sector can only be allayed on a number of issues if the Government intervenes. There have been some welcome decisions already, most important of which were the financial guarantees, issued very soon after the referendum, to reassure our EU research partners that the UK government would continue to fund ongoing projects with a UK partner, and that they would continue to support Erasmus students funded through existing grants. Most recently, the government announced that EU students will qualify for ‘home fee status’ in the 2020/2021 academic year and receive financial guarantees regardless of whether a deal is secured or not.

While these announcements are a real help, there is still a lot we don’t know – and the continuing uncertainty is a major risk in itself. For instance, Government needs to decide on the future fee and loan status of EU students beyond 2021. Whatever decision they make, we need to know no less than 18 months in advance of implementation so universities can mitigate any negative impact in respect of EU student recruitment. In the next three months and in the case of a no-deal Brexit, universities would need government commitments over several vital schemes and programmes.

The three-year limit to the European Temporary Leave to Remain scheme must be reconsidered to ensure EU students using it can remain in the UK for the duration of their course. This should be done without additional costs to the student, and made public, so as not to deter some of Europe’s brightest young minds attending our institutions.

Vivienne Stern

There are also problems on the research side. Although the UK government has guaranteed to underwrite payments for the life-changing research undertaken in collaborative projects, we don’t know how these would work. If there’s no-deal, how will the government replace grants – including prestigious European Research Council grants – which UK universities wouldn’t be able to access?

And what of Erasmus+? A fully-funded replacement scheme must be published immediately, as students set to go abroad as part of their degree remain in the dark over whether periods of mobility will be possible.

The status of professional qualifications would also be in doubt. The current EU-wide directive ensures most professional qualifications achieved in one member state are recognised in all – that will no longer be covered. Will the UK have to agree a separate deal with each of the 27 members in turn. And what would it mean if, on 31 October, these aren’t in place? What will happen to UK qualified lawyers, architects, doctors, vets and other professionals working in the EU, and vice versa?

Additionally, the provision of transnational educational services in EU countries by UK universities must be protected. This is likely to involve country-to-country negotiations across the EU – which only Government can initiate.

We have made our recommendations to Government clear, but now we can only wait as Boris gets his feet under the desk

We have some time for Government to fill the gaps and take necessary action.

But there is a third category of concern where our future can only be decided by the other 27 members states of the EU. If we leave without a deal, and without honouring financial commitments, we would be very worried indeed about the likelihood of the EU agreeing to allow us to associate to Horizon Europe and Erasmus +. Things that should be possible, and which would be in the mutual interest of the UK and EU, might become politically impossible. The prospect of the UK being left out in the cold for a potentially long period would be damaging to our national interests – particularly if we are excluded from research activities.

If the question is ‘are we ready for no-deal?’, the answer is ‘up to a point’. However well-prepared individual universities are, there is a huge amount only Government can do – and where they have yet to act.

No-deal contingency planning has involved a vast amount of work. This is one occasion when I can honestly say that I will be delighted if it turns out to be wasted effort.

Vivienne Stern is the director of Universities UK International