IN the spirit of Monty Python who recommended “always look on the bright side” of life, I’m hoping UK higher education remains internationally engaged and continues promoting borderless research and mobility following the Brexit referendum.

Thankfully, despite the vote, we still have friends in Europe.

One is Christine Legrand, president of the European universities’ communication network, EUPRIO, who issued a clear message that ‘in or out of the European Union, we all need to stick together’.

And many in European higher education are echoing her sentiments.

The European University Association, or EUA, which has 850 members across 47 European countries, issued a statement after the UK vote to leave the European Union, saying it shares the disappointment at the result with its member, Universities UK, and the British university community.

The EUA said it was “very concerned about the insecurity this causes, notably with regard to the participation of British universities in the EU funding programmes as well as the long-term consequences for European cooperation in research and education”.

Universities campaign to remain in EU

Pointing to the campaign waged by Universities UK in favour of remaining in the European Union, the EUA said British universities had “argued against a closed and prejudiced mindset, pushing for openness, critical thinking, and a debate based on evidence; they have set a brilliant example to the rest of the world of what university values mean.”Universities for Europe

The statement went on to say: “British universities are and remain an essential part of the European family of universities, which extends beyond EU borders.

“EUA will continue to work with and for British universities. The Europe of universities will not be divided!”

So what happens now?

EUPRIO for one is determined that it will business as usual for its 700 members in 22 European countries who work in public relations and communications for higher education and research institutions.

Christine Legrand said: “We have always had active membership outside the European Union in countries like Norway, Iceland and Switzerland; and while I personally regret the outcome of the British referendum, the key is that it will not effect how we work to spread and encourage best practice in higher education public relations, marketing and communications across the continent and beyond.”

Germany will do what it can

Horst Hippler, president of the German Rectors’ Conference, HRK, has pledged to do all it can to continue German collaboration with the UK.

Stressing the value of the highly successful research partnerships and exchanges of students between the two countries and their impact on both countries’ economies and on mutual understanding, Hippler was reported telling University World News: “We will do all we can to continue the collaboration between universities in Great Britain, Germany and the rest of the EU without any disruptions.”

Not leaving the EU overnight

BREXIT image jpegDame Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Kent, said: “We should remember that leaving the EU will not happen overnight – there will be a gradual exit process with significant opportunities to seek assurances and influence future policy.”

She believes the first priority of Universities UK will be to convince the UK government to take steps to ensure that staff and students from EU countries can continue to work and study at British universities in the long term, and to promote the UK as a ‘welcoming destination’ for the brightest and best minds.

“We will also prioritise securing opportunities for our researchers and students to access vital pan-European programmes and build new global networks.”

Fears of drop in EU students

But already there are fears among some British university leaders of a fall in the number of EU students coming to British universities, where they make up 6.4% of all full-time undergraduate and postgraduate students.

Warning from Professor Michael Arthur, president of University College London

Warning from Professor Michael Arthur, president of University College London

Michael Arthur, president of University College London, told the Times Higher Education magazine it would be much harder to attract EU students to a country that now looked ‘rather insular and inward-looking’.

Nearly 13 per cent of all full-time UCL students are non-UK EU domiciled and Professor Arthur he was worried that the cost of studying in the UK would become prohibitively expensive for many EU students, since there would be “no legal basis” for not charging them the same fees as international students from outside Europe.

For the moment the UK Student Loans Company has sought to reassure current EU students studying in the UK – and those looking to start courses this year – that funding will continue until the end of their course. But how much access future EU students will have to loans is unclear.

Research funding worries

As for research funding, the Times Higher Education has reported that 18 UK institutions face the prospects of more than half their research funding from competitive grants being wiped out when the country leaves the European Union.

New universities are the most exposed, with Southampton Solent, Bedfordshire and Teesside standing to lose the biggest percentage of their research income from Brexit.

The impact on research funding was one of the biggest concerns of the Universities UK campaign in favour of the Remain camp.

EU staff make up 15% of the UK’s academic workforce, and Universities UK says Britain does disproportionately well in securing EU research funding, receiving £687million of research income from EU sources in 2013/14.

VCs just another ‘vested interest group’ claim

But the focus on what British universities stand to loose from leaving the EU was condemned by one academic who helped to found the Anti-Federalist League, forerunner of the UK Independence Party, or UKIP.

Alan Sked, emeritus professor at LSE

Alan Sked, emeritus professor at LSE

Writing for University World News in February under the headline ‘VCs should stop panicking about Brexit’, Alan Sked, emeritus professor of international history at the LSE, accused ‘distinguished vice-chancellors and professors’ of political bias and behaving just like another ‘vested interest group’.

Two years for transitional arrangements

“Even a modicum of common sense, far less a lifetime of academic research, might have suggested that educated people and research bodies on both sides of the Channel could easily find some arrangement after Brexit to continue such funding, especially since under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty at least two years are given over to establishing transitional arrangements, if and when a member state chooses to withdraw from the EU,” he wrote.

Alan Sked’s piece was the one of the best read during the referendum week on the UWN website.

Others have waded in saying Brexit could represent the dawning of a bright new era for British universities, including Jamie Martin, former adviser to Brexit co-leader Michael Gove.

Writing in the Times Higher Education, he said Brexit will offer new opportunities to non-EU skilled migrants, like academics and students.

He also said academics and students living in the UK need not worry as there will be no change to their circumstances or rights “in the short term, and it seems likely that the Vienna convention will shape any longer-term approach to the rights of existing migrants.”

Whether that convinces anyone that all will be well remains to be seen.

It (probably) won’t be that bad

In another contribution to what happens next?, Ant Bagshaw, assistant director at WONKHE, called for ‘calm heads’ and argued that Brexit ‘does not have to be a “crisis for Britain”.

At least we won’t have to see ‘Nigel Farage’s smug grin on every newspaper front page,’ he said, adding: “This is when the work begins to make the positive case for Britain out of the European Union, but still within a geographical Europe: a Britain where we have student and staff mobility, where we promote borderless research collaboration, where we have an open-minded and internationally-engaged higher education system.”

That should keep us all busy for a while…

* Also see my blog ‘Swiss lessons for UK universities’ referendum campaign from 9 March, 2016 and my blog for EUPRIO In or out of the EU, EUPRIO will stay together‘, published on their website on 28 June, 2016.