Britain is not leaving Europe, but it has just started divorce proceedings from the European Union. Here I explore some of the implications for European higher education.

British and European higher education and research leaders are watching nervously as developments unfold following the start of the official process of the UK leaving the European Union.

Theresa May triggers Brexit

By triggering the European Union’s Article 50, prime minister Theresa May has given the United Kingdom and the 27 other members of the EU two years to try to untangle Britain’s membership of the club and find alternative arrangements for trade and cooperation.

Among the key issues to sort out is what happens to EU staff working in British universities where they account for one in six of academics working in UK universities and research institutions.

There’s also the huge question mark over the 125,000 students from other EU countries studying at UK universities. Will they continue to be treated like home students and get cheap loans to cover the £9,000 tuition fees in England and be able to get free tuition, as they do now, in Scottish universities?

And what about future UK involvement in the highly successful Erasmus+ programme for staff and student mobility and will British academics still be able to draw down funds from the multi-billion European Commission research and development programmes, such as the Horizon 2020 after Brexit?

“Our future relationship with the EU has clear implications for universities in the UK,” says Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK (UUK) and vice-chancellor of the University of Kent.

UUK wants British universities to be assured that they can continue to welcome EU students and staff and have access to “valuable and collaborative European research networks” – but how is not yet known!

Reassurances for EU nationals

While no immediate changes for universities, staff or students are expected during the two years of exit negotiations, Goodfellow says: “There are some immediate steps the (UK) government should take in this transitional period. Most urgently, the government should provide reassurance to EU-nationals currently working in the university sector on their rights to reside and work in the UK post-exit.”

She also wants government guarantees that EU students starting a course in 2018-19 will continue to pay the same fees as UK students and be eligible for loans and grants.

“As EU students start their research about studying abroad more than 12 months in advance of actual enrolment, it is important that action is taken as soon as possible to prevent a further drop in EU applications for 2018-19 entry,” she says.

There was a 7% fall in applications from EU students to study at UK universities by the main 15 January UCAS deadline for applying to UK courses starting in the autumn 2017.

Communication clarity required

Although EU students will still have access to the UK public-backed loans system and pay the same tuition fees as British students for courses starting this Autumn – what happens after that is unclear, at least in England!

The Scottish parliament, which has responsibility for higher education, has already pledged that EU students outside the UK will continue to receive free tuition for courses starting at Scottish universities in 2018-19.

But the message may not be getting through and there are worrying signs that EU students are already rethinking plans to study abroad.

A French independent website dealing with the Erasmus programme responded to a blog from Loughborough University vice-chancellor Robert Allison on the importance of continuing to attract international students, by saying: “French students think that it is no longer possible for them to study in England and they are asking us about destinations of substitutions like Ireland.”

Erasmus exchanges and EU research

There is certainly uncertainty about what will happen to the Erasmus+ exchange programme after Brexit.  It may be that the UK will have to adopt interim arrangements as the Swiss did after they were kicked-out of Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 for three years following their own referendum on immigration. See my blog Can UK universities remain European?

As for access to EU funding for research and innovation programmes, such as Horizon 2020, British researchers will continue to be eligible to bid for funding from European Commission programmes until the exit negotiations have been concluded.

The British government has even guaranteed funding by the UK Treasury for EU grants, agreed for projects prior to Brexit, that continue after the UK has left the EU.

But despite these assurances, there is growing evidence that continental universities are becoming wary of involving British institutions in new bids and proposals for collaborative EU research programmes, as I reported for University World News on 2 March, 2017.

Pedro Teixeira, vice-rector of Portugal’s University of Porto, said in my report: “If we are reapplying for joint European programmes that were coordinated by British universities, the new proposal will not be coordinated by a UK university.

He said this was “just in case the British will not be counted after 2018 or ’19, or whenever” and the bid fails to reach the required number of partners.

Glimmers of hope

The European University Association (EUA) – which represents vice-chancellors and rectors at more than 800 universities in 47 European countries – sees glimmers of hope in speeches from EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and UK premier Theresa May.

Barnier said in a speech in Brussels that the EU was ambitious regarding a post-Brexit relationship with the UK in the areas of research and innovation, even if this happens in a new legal and financial framework.

Thomas Jørgensen, the EUA’s main staff expert on Brexit, says: “The important thing is that the negotiations are done in a flexible manner so that sensible things like Horizon 2020 and Easmus+ association are not made impossible by difficulties in other areas.”

Much is being made of declarations made by Theresa May in her Lancaster House speech in January, in which she welcomed agreement to continue collaborating with European partners on major initiatives in science, research and technology and did not exclude paying into European programme.

Another spanner thrown into the mix is the UK government’s new-found focus on looking at higher education as a major export industry post-Brexit.

A trade minister told UUK’s annual international higher education forum in March that universities should concentrate on increasing transnational education, or TNE, whereby UK courses are offered overseas.

The conference also heard that a recent poll of perspective EU students interested in studying abroad found 76% interested in attending a UK university branch campus in Europe, as long as it was outside their own country. See here for more details.

European networks don’t depend on EU

As for EUPRIO –¬ the network of university communication staff across Europe – the association’s president Christine Legrand, said: “We on the continent work closely with British universities on research and student and staff mobility and are constantly learning from each other.

“Our hope and that of the EUA is that this cooperation can continue in some shape and form.

“The key to that happening is compromise and understanding on both sides in the negotiations that are about to start.”

EUPRIO, like many European networks, doesn’t depend on EU membership and it says: “For EUPRIO, Brexit shouldn’t make any difference. But it is likely to be more difficult for students and staff wanting to go on Erasmus exchanges and researchers wishing to collaborate with colleagues in the UK.”

For more information:

* UUK has produced a useful guide to Brexit for university staff and students, with helpful answers to Brexit frequently asked questions.

Also see:

UK research coordinating role hit by Brexit fears, University World News, 2 March 2017

Can UK universities remain European after Brexit?, 29 January 2017

Driving up TNE is a key UK strategy post-Brexit (Interest in UK branch campuses in the EU) University World News, 24 March 2017

* This is an abridged and slightly updated version of a blog I wrote for EUPRIO on the day Theresa May triggered the start of exit proceedings from the EU, 29 March 2017

Main photo: Dame Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK