A no deal Brexit seriously threatens UK universities | Janet Beer


As we speed towards the deadline for Brexit, the prospect of the UK leaving the EU without a deal is one of the biggest threats our universities have ever faced.

Our 50,000 EU staff and 130,000 EU students, not to mention the 15,000 UK students studying in Europe, are starting the new year facing significant uncertainty about their futures.

There are many other serious implications for universities of crashing out of the EU without a deal on 29 March. These span procurement, data protection, the mutual recognition of qualifications and intellectual property. The contribution that universities make to local economies, through employment, services and support for regional supply chains, will also be put in jeopardy. Perhaps most importantly, a no deal Brexit will compromise the vital research links which benefit wider society, from new cancer treatments to technologies combatting climate change.

That is why university leaders have this week written to MPs to highlight what is at stake. We are calling upon the government and parliamentarians to put the right measures and guarantees in place, and, crucially, to provide a smooth transition for universities, rather than crashing out of the EU with no deal on 29 March.

Universities will be central to achieving a thriving post-Brexit UK through their research and teaching. We are home to one of the best research systems in the world, attractive to stellar academics, top students and global partnerships. This must not be compromised.

Research funding shows just how high the stakes are. We have a proud history of innovation, problem-solving and breakthroughs in our universities, with European Research Council and Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions funding much of this curiosity-driven research. High risk can lead to huge rewards, and these funding streams have enabled British science and research to flourish.

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The UK is currently the most successful country in terms of hosting the recipients of European Research Council. Our calculations show that between 2007 and 2017, the UK won over 1,850 grants, compared to 1,330 in Germany, our nearest competitor. Academics funded by these grants have won prestigious prizes including six Nobel Prizes, four Fields Medals and five Wolf Prizes. According to an independent study in 2017, more than 70% of European Research Council projects have made scientific breakthroughs or major advances.

While we welcome the assurances that the government has already provided about the continuation of some research funding streams in a no deal scenario, it is critical that similar guarantees are extended, without delay, to cover European Research Council and Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions funding.

Without cast-iron assurances, we have calculated that UK universities will lose around £1.2 billion of research funding over the next two years. And there will be dire repercussions in terms of our ability to retain and recruit the staff who are the lifeblood of our universities.

World-leading academics and researchers may leave for countries where access to European Research Council funding is not at risk, and those currently considering relocating to the UK may think again. Recent Nobel physics laureate, Duncan Haldane, said he had been considering returning to the UK from Princeton, but would change his mind if access to prestigious grants were to be cut off. This story is not a one off, it mirrors conversations happening in universities across the country.

We have just weeks for the UK government and parliament to find a way to avoid a no deal scenario. Without this, it is no exaggeration to suggest that this would be an academic, cultural and scientific setback from which it would take our universities and our country decades to recover.

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