For universities at least, Brexit means …?

Posted by ap507 at Jan 25, 2017 02:55 PM |
Professor Iain Gillespie discusses how UK universities and EU funding will be affected by Brexit

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Almost six months down the line from the June 23rd referendum, Brexit – apparently, still just means Brexit.

But then, what does Brexit mean?

With a new Prime Minister and cabinet now settled in place; one court case down and more to come, and now perilously close to the triggering of the Article 50 talks process, we haven’t yet managed to work out the answer to that question.

With a Supreme Court challenge on the way, we haven’t really even managed to work out whether parliament will be involved, or whether the process of leaving the world’s biggest trading block can be by a simple act of cabinet fiat.

The Prime Minister has started to talk about Brexit as though it’s a game of poker, and trading negotiations are something that we will spring on other EU countries by surprise – rather than the development of new collaborative arrangements to which EU partners must agree, or which go nowhere.

The delay in making any progress – which was originally announced as designed to give the cabinet time to decide what UK negotiators will ask for in the Article 50 process - is starting to look like nothing more than drif.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that, when it comes to Brexit at least, the government are simply lost.

And yet the decisions – like whether we will ask for a ‘hard’ or a ‘soft’ exit from the EU - will have serious implications for us here at the University of Leicester, and for people across the UK.

For a university, autumn is the start of the new year. At Leicester we’ve welcomed 3,700 new faces to the thousands who’ve passed through our doors.

1,300 of our current students are from the EU and 430 of our academic staff, constituting 13% of the total.

For almost the first time in our hundred year history, we’re not quite sure what to tell them.

We will work hard to limit the impact of Brexit on our colleagues and students, but the reality is that there is much in the long-term picture that we don’t understand.

Take student funding. Under present arrangements, EU students pay the same rate as UK students; they have access to the same funding mechanisms including the student loan book.

Once we are out of the EU, will it will be possible to continue this arrangement, without it being viewed as unfairly discriminatory against students from further afield?

Like all universities, Leicester’s reputation – and our ability to attract the best students - rests on a combination of the excellence of our teaching and of our research.

Opt for hard Brexit – curtailing freedom of movement for study and work - and we would expect to see international student confidence in the UK fall.

So what in those circumstances, could we do?

For a research intensive university like Leicester, one answer is to focus on our reputation for discovery, which is as diverse as better health for ethnically diverse populations and space science, both areas where we are making major new investments.

The excellence of our research reputation attracts many of our students to Leicester. But here too, the picture is concerning.

The UK is a net - and generously treated – beneficiary of EU research funding. In the current funding round the UK contributed £5.4bn to EU research programmes, and received £8.8bn worth of funding in return. Grants to UK universities constituted a remarkable 14% of total research grants disbursed by the EU last year.

It is difficult to see how any government will be able to afford to replicate that level of funding, or avoid the negative impacts of failure to invest in UK science.

Lastly, it is hard to see how Mrs May’s government will be able to replicate the levels of EU regional investment that have made such a difference to Leicester, and to Leicestershire.

The 2014-2020 Leicestershire European Structural Investment Fund is valued at £105m, of which £58m has been committed to projects which, amongst other purposes, would underpin city regeneration, create 2,300 jobs, and support 6,000 businesses including 1,000 start-ups. At least £40m of local funding could now be lost, while the new cabinet struggles with broader economic impacts calculated at 3% of annual GDP.

From national economic performance, to local business confidence, or simply for the new students now packing their bags for the start of a new term, the decisions made now in cabinet will decide what kind of Brexit we look for. 

We will be a hard Brexit or a soft one.

For Leicester’s sake, for our universities, and for UK prosperity, let it be a soft one. And let’s have some answers soon.

  • Professor Iain Gillespie is Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research & Enterprise at the University of Leicester

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