Many looking for an orderly departure from the European Union are becoming increasing concerned at the prospect of the UK crashing out with no-deal, including universities and researchers on both sides of the Channel.

Students who will be halfway through their Erasmus+ semesters abroad and researchers in the middle of cross-Channel European Union collaborative projects are understandably worried about what will happen after Brexit Day on March 29.

Some fear they could find themselves out of the country and confused about continued funding for their study abroad or cross-border research and wondering whether the posturing by both sides in the Brexit parliamentary debates will ever lead to a deal that both the UK government and European Commission can sign up to.

Make Brexit as painless as possible

Whichever way it goes, there is an urgent need for effective communications by universities with students and staff caught up in the Brexit muddle to help ensure the UK’s departure from the EU is as painless as possible for people working and studying abroad on both sides of the Channel.

That was one of the key messages in the latest in a series of Brexit webinars organised by Universities UK International, or UUKi, which I found strangely reassuring in the midst of all the uncertainty.

Beef-up internal communications

Anne-May Janssen, Head of European Engagement at UUKi, (pictured) called on universities to beef-up their communications to keep both staff and students informed of what has actually been announced by the UK government.

“There is an urgent need to reach out to university staff about their residency status and to identify staff who will start at the university after Brexit,” said Janssen.

Anne-May Janssen, Anne-May Janseen, UUKi Head of European Engagement

See if staff can start before Brexit

If you know of staff due to arrive from the EU to the UK, or vice versa, get in touch to “see if they can start at your university before March 29,” suggested Janssen, who encouraged universities to take advantage of the UK government’s settlement scheme toolkit and actively help staff uncertain about what will happen with Brexit.

For those who have been in the UK for five years or more prior to March 29, the position is supposed to be clear.

Citizen rights after Brexit

“Even in a no-deal Brexit, the UK government has promised to protect citizen rights for those who have been in the UK for five years prior to 29 March. They will retain rights as they are now through the EU Settlement Scheme,” said Janssen.

From the European perspective, the European Commission has asked member states to be generous to UK citizens living in their territories for five years or more and to grant them residency permits as third party nationals.

But there is a lot of variation in how the remaining 27 EU countries are responding.

Netherlands appears generous

The Netherlands appears the most generous, with their ministry of justice saying UK citizens have complete rights as they do now. British citizens will receive temporary residency in the post and will then have 15 months to apply for permanent residency.

In Germany ministers have drafted a bill to allow UK citizens to continue their rights as now, with three months to apply for residency.

The Czechs have a bill ready if the UK leaves without a deal along the lines of the Dutch 15 months’ period.

The Republic of Ireland is bilaterally committed to keeping the local travel areas, with British citizens continuing to have the same rights as now without the need of going through any registration process.

France has said that in the case of no deal, British citizens will be subject to common law and will have to apply for a visa if going to stay longer than three months.

Of course, despite the odds, the British Prime Minister may still manage to get a Brexit deal with the European Commission approved by the UK Parliament before March 29, which will include a transition period until the end of 2020 to sort everything out.

Be prepared for a no-deal scenario

But it is best to be prepared for the worst-case scenario – a no-deal Brexit!

The UK government has pledged a ‘financial underwrite’ for British students and staff abroad through Erasmus+, which guarantees funding to institutions until the end of the ERASMUS programme.

“However, there a lack of clarity about how exactly it will work,” admitted Janssen.

And after Brexit there is no guarantee that the UK will sign-up for the successor programme to Erasmus+, which draws to a close in 2020.

More information about how the underwrite for Erasmus will work is expected to be announced any day on the UK Gov website. In the meantime, UK universities should continue applying for EU grants. “Don’t rule yourself by default out if there is an agreement,” said Janssen.

Arrange a backup! 

But she also advised EU and UK partnerships to think about options and contingencies outside of Erasmus+ if necessary.

“Arrange your own backup bilateral agreements – applicable the moment we leave without a deal. Go ahead now, don’t wait for us”, was Janssen’s message.

She said a template was being developed, adding that UK universities should make sure they are not advertising a period abroad through Erasmus, if what they end up offering is something different.

Risk areas

Janssen also urged universities to consider now how they can ensure continuation of study in the case of a no-deal Brexit and to provide organisational support for their staff and students on Erasmus placements on the Friday the UK leaves.

Risk areas include the dissolution of grant agreements; dissolution of Erasmus learning agreements; no access to Erasmus+ tools and having to re-accommodate students.

“For the UK side, the government has agreed the underwrite, so UK students will still get their the grants. But the guarantee doesn’t exist for EU students in the UK.

Questions institutions should be asking include: 

  • Would students lose their grants?
  • Would students have to come back to their university?
  • Would there even be room at their university for these students?
  • What will happen to their credits?
  • What would be the effect of an unfinished period of studying abroad for these students?

What about research?

As for research, there is still a lack of clarity about what would replace the loss of ERC grants and Marie Sklodowska-Currie actions.

“We know the UK government will underwrite programmes that are on-going and that the UK is already a partner of, but we don’t know how this will work in practice.

“We also need detailed contingency plans about how the UK government would replace those parts of Horizon 2020 that we wouldn’t have access to as a third country and for the UK government to talk to the European Commission about the implications of a no deal scenario,” said Janssen.

UK Research and Innovation, or UKRI, launched a portal in September for UK-based recipients to upload all the information regarding their grants as they will be the organisation distributing their national funds through the underwrite.

Concerns flagged

Among the concerns that have been flagged with government are:

  • How will the payments take place?
  • Will pre-financing be affected because of the change of status?
  • Do we need to change existing grant agreements because the European Commission is now a partner?
  • What are the implications for the change of status for ERC grantees?
  • What will the audit requirements be?
  • What will happen to the exchange rates and will they impact these contracts?
  • Will project co-ordinators in the UK still receive funds from the EC to distribute eligible consortium partners?
  • What will happen to those projects where the consortium will cease to meet the eligibility requirements when the UK is no longer a member state?

Janssen urged EU universities working with UK counterparts to identify collaborative research projects that include UK partners and/or new consortium leaders.

Communicate UK government assurances

“Communicate UK government assurances on this and identify staff mobile at the moment of exit; and continue to liaise with UK partners to identify areas in your consortium/EU project that will require contingency planning,” she said.

Michael Moody, Head of Science and Innovation Nordics in the UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, told the webinar: “A lot of really good work comes out of our cooperation with the EU and we don’t want to stop that. We believe the EU understands the value of UK science to them and conversations we have had around science with the EU partners have been very positive.

“The political agreement that hasn’t been passed by parliament (Yet) has a lot about how we can maintain and grow the future of our science relationship. This is one of the areas that is not contentious and one of the few areas where the UK announced early on that it was willing to pay to play to be part of the programmes. And that was agreed across the political spectrum and by those at the various ends of the Brexit scale.”

View from the EUA

Thomas Jørgensen, EUA ‘Brexit’ expert

Thomas Jorgensen, senior policy coordinator at the European University Association (EUA), is among those keeping in close touch with UUKi as the Brexit scenario nears its conclusion.

He agreed broad communications is needed internally at universities in the EU, for UK students on Erasmus and others abroad, and for UK staff and EU academics in research cooperation with UK colleagues and those needing specifically UK-manufactured items or services.  Administrative staff will also have to manage a completely new legal situation.

“One big problem is that the European Commission has not yet given any detailed guidance how they will apply the rules concerning the Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020. There are a lot of unanswered questions, and until we know how the Commission will handle this, there are many issues that cannot be communicated. Particularly for EU Erasmus students in the UK, it must be in a stressful situation until the Commission comes with a final word on their status and their scholarships.”