Author Mark Richards

After nearly five months of Brexit negotiations, there is still no agreement on the rights of EU citizens resident in the UK – and the higher education sector is worried about their future

So, the exams have been marked, the students have been despatched to the jobs market or three months backpacking around Europe and the country’s top academics can now get on with what is really important. Worrying: specifically, worrying about the Prime Minister’s plans for Brexit.

Last week the Russell Group – the 24 top universities in the UK – published 10 demands on EU citizens’ rights, which they say must be met if the UK’s exit from the EU is not to damage the higher education sector.

Why is the higher education sector so important?

The higher education sector contributes significantly to the EU economy, to the tune of £73bn a year. To put that figure in perspective, it is virtually identical to the turnover of the UK car industry: this time last year the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders published a report putting the turnover of the UK automotive industry at £71.6bn.

So higher education is big business – but will it really be damaged by the Prime Minister’s plans, or is this (as some papers have claimed) just the university ‘fat cats’ worrying about their perks and their pensions?

Five months: what’s happened?

Before we consider the question, let us take a look at what has happened so far with Brexit. As we sit in our gardens on August Bank Holiday Monday, basking in the late summer sunshine after another perfect British summer, it will be five months since Theresa May triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and began the formal process of Britain leaving the European Union. There will be 19 months to go until – in theory – we leave the EU on March 29th, 2019.

What has happened in those five months? It is fair to say the answer is ‘not much.’ Theresa May has called a general election which had exactly the opposite effect to that which she intended. Far from winning a clear majority she is now a lame duck Prime Minister, dependant on the Democratic Unionists for a parliamentary majority and waiting for the moment when she is told to fall on her sword.

The Higher Education Sector and Brexit

So five months with no real progress – and you can make that six because Germany will hold parliamentary elections in mid-September as Chancellor Angela Merkel seeks a fourth term in office. So there will be no substantive negotiations with the EU until that small matter is sorted out.

While the cat’s away…

This lack of any clear direction was exemplified by the recent squabbling among senior Conservatives as soon as the Prime Minister went on holiday. Theresa May duly returned to reiterate that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and has now said that “freedom of movement will end with Brexit.” This was echoed last week by Immigration Minister Brandon Lewis: speaking last week he said the Government is “very clear” that “free movement of labour ends when we leave the EU in the spring of 2019.”

So there you are: nothing could be clearer than that. Except that in the same week Environment Secretary Michael Gove said the Cabinet was “united around a transitional deal which will grant businesses continued access to migrant labour.” And Home Secretary Amber Rudd has spoken of there being no Brexit ‘cliff edge,’ with the UK, “continuing to welcome” European workers.

What do the universities want?

So clear as mud – and who can blame the Russell Group for making its pitch? In its proposals (or demands, depending on your point of view) the Russell Group calls for ten points to be clarified – all centring on the rights of EU citizens after Brexit, and what steps EU citizens will need to take to remain in the UK.

Professor Stuart Corbridge, Vice-Chancellor of Durham University, said,

“Students, academics and staff from across the EU have helped make Durham a world leader in higher education. Universities and European staff need to be able to plan for the future with confidence and an early agreement on the permanent rights of EU citizens is vital.”

Essentially the universities fear three things: a loss of students, both in numbers and quality; an inability to recruit talented staff, and that the staff they currently have will feel increasingly unsure of their position in the UK and look to work elsewhere.

The Russell Group are demanding that all EU students starting courses in 2017/18 and 2018/19 are given the chance to stay for five years – so for most students, two years after they graduate – and gain settled status in the UK.

The universities have also called on Theresa May to scrap plans make every single EU citizen apply for a new ‘settled status’ and instead grant an automatic right to remain to the thousands of people already permanently resident here. In addition, they want more clarity around the rights of the families of EU staff.

What will the Government say?

The problem for the Government is that they have to implement rules which cover all EU citizens in the UK. The rules have to be the same, whether you are an East European immigrant washing cars in a supermarket car park, or an Italian aerodynamicist lecturing at Cambridge. And with university towns having voted in significant numbers for Remain and then a year later for Jeremy Corbyn, they are unlikely to be high on Theresa May’s list of favourite causes.

But the figures speak for themselves – higher education is equal to the car industry in terms of importance to the economy. And after all, you could argue, the Government was prepared to give assurances to Nissan ahead of the Brexit negotiations starting – something Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable interpreted as meaning that the UK will stay in the customs union (which would almost certainly mean retaining freedom of movement).

Higher education is a competitive business. British universities want to retain their high positions in the world universities ranking to attract the best students, the best teaching staff and money for research and investment. What they need from the Government is an answer, so that they can plan and recruit accordingly. Obviously, they want the Government to agree to their demands: but if they do not get a ‘yes,’ you suspect that a ‘no’ would be more useful than a long, drawn-out ‘maybe.’ The higher education sector cannot wait until March 2019 for an answer.