Brexit and Universities: Apocalypse? No!
Lee Jones and Christopher Bickerton
11 June 2018
Many forecast doomsday scenarios for universities if or when we leave the EU. This is nonsense. British universities are not dependent on the EU for their survival and are far more susceptible to British government policy. With the right policies in place, there is no reason why our universities cannot thrive outside the EU.
British universities are bastions of Remainer opinion. According to surveys, 90 percent of academics voted against leaving the EU. During the referendum campaign, although groups like KCL’s UK in a Changing Europe programme strove to provide neutral analysis, academia generally produced a steady drumbeat of pro-EU boosterism, combined with heavy doses of “Project Fear”, warning that British universities would be severely harmed by Brexit.
The chief offender was Universities UK (UUK), the sector’s chief lobby group, which launched a “Universities for Europe” campaign in July 2015. Their entirely utilitarian case against Brexit was as follows: over 125,000 EU students currently study at UK universities, generating £2.27bn for the UK economy and 19,000 jobs; 15,000 academic staff at British universities are from other EU states; and over 200,000 UK students have benefited from the Erasmus programme. Some vague statements are made about EU research funding, plus transparently weak efforts to link the total economic activity generated by universities to “EU support”.
UUK committed British universities to “promot[ing] powerful evidence and highlight compelling stories about the benefits of EU membership” without any internal debate, nor any consideration of academic freedom. A managerial elite should not be able to commit a university – which is a community of scholars – to any position without the consent of that community.
This position created a chilling effect during the referendum campaign, with pro-Brexit academics avoiding speaking out for fear of being branded traitors to the sector’s basic interests. This has only intensified since the vote, as many scholars responded hysterically to the unexpected outcome. Pro-Leave academics have complained of being turned into pariahs, while pro-Leave students report intimidation and harassment, with one student at Queen Mary University of London being branded a “Brexit bitch” by her peers.
Debunking the apocalypse
UUK’s case against Brexit was never persuasive, and looks positively ridiculous in the wake of the referendum.
Claims that Britain would lose access to the Erasmus programme were always dishonest, because participation is not tied to EU membership. At the time of the referendum it had 927 partner institutions in 37 countries – including but not limited to the EU’s 28 member-states. In May 2018 it was confirmed that even the “Erasmus+” programme would be opened up to every country on Earth.
UUK was correct in stating that many EU students and staff work in Britain, vastly enriching our campuses in every sense. But it was pure scaremongering to pretend that these people would suddenly disappear overnight. EU academics and students come to Britain because our universities are world-class institutions that are, relative to the vast majority of continental universities, thriving. EU students keep coming despite a massive increase in fees, while the Euro-crisis has only intensified the exodus of talented scholars from countries like Greece, Spain and Italy.
It was always absurd to suggest that this would cease with Brexit, and the post-referendum figures bear this out. Although EU student applications fell slightly in 2017, possibly reflecting the hysterical fearmongering surrounding the referendum, in 2018 they rose by 10 percent, at a time when domestic applications were falling. As for EU staff, despite high-profile stories of (entirely unacceptable) Home Office cock-ups requesting some European academics to leave the country, the latest figures show the exact opposite. Misleading reports of a “Brexodus” only focused on departures, which are routine when contracts end, ignoring newcomers, who continue to outnumber those leaving by 25 percent.
To be sure, Brexit is yet to happen. But there is no reason why this should change after the UK finally leave the EU. The structural advantages of UK universities are deeply entrenched. And there is no reason why a liberal visa regime for academics and students cannot be adopted by the British government, nor why they cannot continue to charge EU students the same fees as British ones. This is simply a matter of government policy. And the British public is largely happy to accept more foreign students and skilled migrants, despite their frequent depiction as crazed xenophobes.
Indeed, the flexibility that Brexit will create around immigration policy could correct some serious inequities caused by EU rules. Since EU member-states cannot control EU migration, any UK government that wishes to reduce immigration must curb non-EU migrants. This leads to a de facto racialised immigration policy where predominantly white EU citizens are free to enter the UK, but many non-white non-EU citizens are effectively barred. Current and prospective students face regular harassment from the UK Border Agency, while non-EU staff like Paul Hamilton and Miwa Hirono have been deported, and academics are subject to daily surveillance to meet strict visa rules.
This doubtless stems ultimately from the government’s “hostile environment” policy. But EU membership only fuels anti-immigration sentiment by creating a sense that immigration policy is not under the control of UK politicians and voters. It certainly does not challenge it in any way – all of these practices emerged during Britain’s EU membership. Indeed, EU strictures channel resultant policy in an even more irrational direction, often preventing British universities recruiting the best and brightest regardless of national origin. As argued elsewhere on The Full Brexit (see Proposal #4 - Open Up Immigration to non-EU Citizens), leaving the EU requires us to devise an independent immigration regime, and there is no reason why these inequities and iniquities cannot be rectified.
UUK’s claims that a loss of EU research funding would devastate British universities were also nonsense. Certainly Britain has done disproportionately well in securing EU grants, receiving 15.5 percent of funding under “FP7” and a fifth of European Research Council awards, for a total of £687m in 2013/14. But this was just 6.1 percent of UK universities’ total research income of £11.2bn that year. This is not incidental, but it is not crucial either. The UK attracts EU funding because of the inherent scientific strengths of its universities, not the other way round. The UK government can easily decide to offset any reduction in EU income by increasing its own funding for UK science, rather than relying on the EU to “top up” government investment.
But it is not even inevitable that the UK will lose access to EU research income. As we explained during the referendum, non-EU countries like Switzerland have negotiated agreements to give their universities access to Horizon 2020 funds. They are also members of the European Research Infrastructure Consortium, where since 2013 they have enjoyed equal rights with EU members. If Israeli institutions can win €203m in EU grants, there is good reason to believe that the UK would continue to enjoy access to international funding and participate in cross-border collaborative research. Indeed, in June 2018 it was confirmed that the EU's "Horizon Europe" research funding programme would be open to any country, European or otherwise, meeting certain criteria, making it practically certain that the UK will remain part of EU networks and funding. Even if this had not happened, the suggestion that Brexit would terminate scientific collaboration always assumed, wrongly, that European researchers could not find new ways to work with one another and might even seek to “punish” their British peers for the referendum outcome. This entirely ignores the history of scientific collaboration, where even dramatic obstacles such as war did not deter people from working with one another to learn more about the world.
When scientists complain that their “laboratory would fall apart” outside of the EU, they are not only – with few exceptions – crying wolf. They are also prioritising their own selfish interests (however misconceived) over all other considerations. Any critical argument about the EU, and indeed any political argument whatsoever, seems to fall by the wayside, deemed irrelevant by those thinking only of their present research activities.
Brexit is not about anyone’s lab; it is about democracy. The consequences of EU membership or exit are so vast and wide-ranging that it is the most significant political decision that will occur in our lifetimes. It is too important to reduce to pounds and pence.
Leaving the EU means restoring national sovereignty – that is, full, democratic control over our own policies and laws. This actually makes it easier, not harder, to change the things that academics may be dissatisfied about. If one dislikes the immigration regime as it applies to students and academic staff, one can campaign to change it. If one thinks that UK science is under-funded, making us overly reliant on EU money, then one can demand that the government funds universities properly. If this idea that popular demands should translate into government policy seems unrealistic, it simply signifies how degraded our democracy has become after decades of EU membership.
The reality is that the fate of UK universities is far more tied up with the British state than the EU. The EU has done nothing to protect our institutions from progressive marketization and bureaucratization, which are the real threats to academic freedom and integrity today, not Brexit. Yet, the campaigns against the recent Higher Education and Research Bill, which radically intensified marketization, drew little interest from academics, with under 150 attending the Convention for Higher Education meetings and under a dozen being more actively involved (including one of the authors of this piece). One cannot, therefore, be particularly surprised when such regulatory changes threaten the integrity and future of our institutions. Rather than moaning about Brexit, academics would be well advised to roll up their sleeves and get involved in reshaping our collective political life.
 See UK in a Changing Europe.
 UUK, “Brexit and UK Universities”, no date.
 See, e.g. “I voted for Brexit – why do academic colleagues treat me like a pariah?”, The Guardian, 15 September 2017. See also Lee Jones, “The Mail’s ‘Brexit bias’ witch-hunt is wrong, but raises uncomfortable home truths”, LSE Brexit Blog, 30 October 2017.
 “Brexit-supporting students getting abuse on campus”, BBC News, 2 November 2017.
 “Erasmus+ exchange programme set to open to all countries in 2021”, Times Higher Education, 31 May 2018.
 “UK universities report rise in applications from EU students”, The Guardian, 5 February 2018.
 “Fears of ‘Brexodus’ of academics from Britain's universities are ‘a myth’, figures show”, Daily Telegraph, 10 May 2018.
 UUK, “New ComRes poll: majority of British public would like to see the same number or more international students”, 13 April 2017; “Half of British public support more immigration of highly skilled workers, poll suggests”, The Independent, 18 April 2017.
 “You look foreign: bring your passport, it's what the UKBA would want”, Times Higher Education, 4 October 2012.
 “American Shakespeare expert Paul Hamilton arrested pending deportation from UK”, The Independent, 27 January 2016; “Academic who travels the world as government adviser set to be deported - because she is out of the country too much to get a visa”, Daily Mail, 20 March 2015.
 “Edinburgh University under fire over staff surveillance”, Scotsman, 23 April 2016; "UK academics oppose visa monitoring regime for foreign staff", Times Higher Education, 7 June 2018.
 Higher Education Statistics Authority, “What is the income and expenditure of HE providers?”, no date.
 Alan Sked, “Don’t listen to the EU’s panicking pet academics”, UK in a Changing Europe, 3 March 2016.
 See European Commission, "Horizon Europe - the next research and innovation framework programme", 7 June 2018.
 “My laboratory would fall apart if Britain left the EU”, The Guardian, 28 August 2015.
About the authors
Lee Jones is Reader in International Politics at Queen Mary University of London. Christopher Bickerton is Reader in Modern European Politics at the University of Cambridge.
An earlier version of this article was published during the referendum campaign in the Times Higher Education and won the THE/ Higher Education Policy Institute’s EU Referendum Essay Competition.
This work represents the views of the authors only. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.