EU academics fleeing the UK in a ‘Brexodus’
(Last updated: 12 May 2021)
A cross-party committee of MPs have in a recent report warned that urgent steps must be taken to help protect the future status of EU academics in the UK. According to the BBC, the report said EU academics' right to work and stay should be given unilaterally before the end of this year if there is no reciprocal deal with other EU countries.
Amongst the endless number of repercussions the UK is suffering as a result of Brexit, experts also say Britain may lose many of its EU academics through a 'Brexodus', leading to a brain drain within its academic institutions and placing a further strain on their resources.
Britain’s top universities have traditionally been among the world’s most sought-after destinations for academics and students alike, from all parts of the globe. Foreign academics are often attracted to the reputational, intellectual, economic and employment benefits of the teaching and research opportunities in Britain. Early career researchers have been particularly drawn to the varying research and funding opportunities in the UK, and as a result, the country has appealed to some of the brightest minds in academia from all corners of the globe.
But since Britons voted to leave the EU, the country risks losing this talent which plays a crucial role in the academic and research community. As such, the UK may struggle to sustain both its enviable position and its global appeal and funding opportunities tied to foreign academics.
UK academia under threat
The lack of job security given to foreign academics has been an increasing source of concern for lecturers and researchers in Britain’s key institutions following the Brexit vote. Leaving the EU may force some of the country’s best academics to seek work outside of the UK, rendering our universities significantly less competitive.
Representatives of UK research institutions also point out that a hard Brexit may make it very problematic for the industry to fill specialist positions for which it cannot find enough local talent. They argue that it would cut off the flow of highly-skilled academics required in the UK that are simply not available on home turf. This may significantly affect the quality of research and education in Britain’s leading research institutions and universities.
"Britain's leading universities recruit the best academics from across the continent to enhance their global appeal."
These types of institutions are highly dependent on academics from the EU, and further afield; they recruit the best academics from across the continent to enhance their global appeal and to cater for their increasingly global audience. Experts from the Higher Education Statistics Agency estimate that over 31,000 of UK university academics are recruited from the EU based on 2014/2015 figures. They suggest that this figure accounts for 16% of the total number of academics in Britain’s universities.
What's more, EU academics play a central role in the running of Britain’s leading universities; 24% of Oxford’s academic staff comes from the EU and 22% for Cambridge. The London School of Economics is made up of 38% of EU academic staff, while the University of Manchester is 18%. Other notable universities such as Imperial, University College London and King’s – indeed the majority of Russell Group universities – recruit a high percentage of their staff from the EU.
If we disaggregate by subject area, EU academics account for 26% of those with a Physics specialism; 25% for Engineering; 20% for Information Technology; 21% for Chemistry; and 22% for Biosciences. Needless to say, being part of the EU has given British research a significant boost. It has also been able to benefit from effective research collaborations, often tied to substantial research funding.
A slippery slope for Britain's research funding
Freedom of movement within the EU allowed thousands of foreign academics to live and work visa-free in Britain, but a hard Brexit could reverse this trend leaving many foreign academics jobless. Britain will also lose out on research funding from the EU, which remains an important source of research support for the country.
When compared to the European average, public spending on research in Britain is comparatively low. In 2015, the UK spent only 1.7% of its GDP on research and science, for instance, compared to the OECD average of 2.4% and the German average of 2.9%. Notably, the United States allocated 2.8% of its GDP to scientific study in the same year, and it's by no means a secret that the UK has fallen behind in terms of its investment in research when compared to its competitors, with significant implications for its competitiveness and productivity.
The EU has been on hand to bridge this funding shortfall but after Brexit, this could change. In addition to Horizon 2020. Access to this type of funding will also have to be renegotiated now that Article 50 has been triggered.
Furthermore, the uncertainty over future EU funding stands to harm research collaborations, and in more ways than one. Experts have revealed that a number of higher education institutions reporting that some researchers have refrained from bidding for EU funding because of the uncertainty involved. Other researchers do not want to be a financial liability and as a result, have also refrained from placing bids.
In a confidential survey conducted by The Guardian featuring the UK’s Russell Group universities, the newspaper found that Brexit had released a wave of discrimination against UK researchers, leading to cuts in research or academic collaborations with European associates. The survey found that in some cases, British academics were asked to abandon EU-funded projects or to completely resign from leadership roles because of the associated financial uncertainties.
Surge in academics ready to leave the UK
EU Academics have also been very vocal about their concerns following the Brexit vote. In a YouGov survey conducted on behalf of the University and College Union, 90% of the 1,000 academics surveyed believed that Brexit would have a negative impact on Britain’s academic institutions. Close to half of respondents (44%) also noted that they personally know colleagues who've already lost access to EU funding opportunities as a result of the vote. The survey also revealed that 42% of academics were more likely to consider moving out of the UK, while 29% already knew of colleagues departing or planning to depart the country.
Several foreign academics in the UK have expressed that they feel less welcome in the country following the Brexit vote and are looking abroad for better opportunities. The YouGov survey is also an indication of the general mood within UK academia, with 76% of non-UK EU citizens expressing that they are likely to leave the UK now more than ever. Until the Government reaches a firm conclusion on the status of foreign academics’ right to remain – or at the very least provides a clear directive of what is to happen in the future – it is unlikely that many will stay. Not all academics have been in the UK long enough to be eligible for permanent residency as per current immigration rules, and moreover, a large number also do not meet the salary threshold required for a skilled worker visa.
The British Parliament has stated that it hopes to protect the rights of EU citizens once negotiations on their rights start, but not everyone is convinced. Academics continue to press for assurances about their immigration status and rights. Speaking on March 29 when Article 50 was triggered, Prime Minister May said: "When I sit around the negotiating table in the months ahead, I will represent every person in the whole United Kingdom – young and old, rich and poor, city, town, country and all the villages and hamlets in between. And yes, those EU nationals who have made this country their home. It is my fierce determination to get the right deal for every single person in this country".
"Oxford and Cambridge have warned that they will suffer considerable damage if foreign academics were to lose their right to work in the UK."
The Government has noted that we should expect a decision soon and universities such as Oxford have jumped on this opportunity to remind Parliament about the centrality of foreign academics to their research programmes. Moreover, they continue to express concern about the number of academics who are already planning to depart the UK in the face of uncertainty about their status and rights.
Both Oxford and Cambridge have warned that they will suffer considerable damage if foreign academics were to lose their right to work in the UK. University leaders have urged Parliament to support a House of Lords amendment to the Brexit Bill, which assures protection for EU nationals living in the UK.
UK universities have benefited extensively from the presence of EU academics and funding for decades, both intellectually and economically. There are reputational benefits of recruiting foreign academic staff, which the UK has similarly capitalised on for years. Britain has been able to profit in a variety of ways from international research and academic networks, as a direct result of EU nationals working within its higher education system. As the threat of a major Brexodus continues, these benefits are undoubtedly being jeopardised, and only time will tell how both UK institutions, and the EU nationals living here, will be affected.