Oxford future research hangs in balance after May’s Brexit speech

Oxford’s future as a world-leading academic institution may be on the line following Theresa May’s announcement of a “red white and blue Brexit”, which will see an end to freedom of movement across the UK border.

On Tuesday the Prime Minister spoke of new border restrictions which will affect total migration from the European Union, a figure which includes students.

However, signalling that the government remains firm in its commitment to sustaining the UK’s reputation for academic excellence, she stated: “We will continue to attract the brightest and the best to work or study in Britain—indeed openness to international talent must remain one of this country’s most distinctive assets—but that process must be managed properly so that our immigration system serves the national interest.”

“A global Britain must also be a country that looks to the future. That means being one of the best places in the world for science and innovation. One of our great strengths as a nation is the breadth and depth of our academic and scientific communities, backed up by some of the world’s best universities. And we have a proud history of leading and supporting cutting-edge research and innovation.”

Britain’s membership of the European Union grants it access to nearly €80 billion in research project funding as part of the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation: Horizon 2020.

An exit from the European Union would mean that, without alternative arrangements agreed, British universities would lose access to this funding.

It is possible that Britain will adopt a similar model to Switzerland, which has associated country membership of Horizon 2020 on the condition it continues to accept free movement of peoples.

Speaking to the Education Select Committee about the likely impact of a hard Brexit last week, Professor Alastair Buchan, Oxford’s incoming head of Brexit strategy, said: “We’re giving up 500 to 950 years of exchange—I think we need to be very cautious [about what type of Brexit is pursued].”

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He compared the issues facing Oxford and other leading British universities to Premier League Football clubs.

He commented: “Our problem is the Manchester United problem… Every student and every staff member that comes to Oxford is a benefit for this country, because we recruit quality, people that play in the top league.

“We need to be leading, and we have been leading as universities in the past 10, 20 years. Thirty or 40 years ago we weren’t, when we joined the EU. To lose that would be absolutely shooting ourselves in the foot—we must not do that.”

At the same committee, held at Pembroke College (Oxford), Catharine Barnard, a Professor of EU Law at Cambridge, warned that if Britain did not act fast to secure its academic future, it could have dire consequences, with “Germany … working very hard to see if they can attract British academics or academics from British universities to Germany, offering positions that have no teaching connected, research-based posts. Germany is snapping at our heels”.

William Rees-Mogg, President-Elect at the Oxford University Conservative Association (OUCA), told Cherwell: “[I] am glad to hear that the government will seek to maintain a fruitful relationship with Europe in the Education Sector.”

The Vice-Chancellor was unavailable for comment.