Universities warned over Brexit brain drain

Research suggests three in four EU academics would consider leaving the UK post-Brexit

The UK’s top universities are especially vulnerable to a potential exodus of European scholars in response to the UK’s exit from the European Union, new figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) suggest.

The research shows that 21 of the Russell Group’s 24 universities have a proportion of EU academics higher than the UK average. Moreover, EU nationals make up over a quarter of the academic staff at eight universities: including 26 per cent at Oxford and 27 per cent at Cambridge.

Uncertainty over the working rights of EU staff and their dependents after Brexit has led to concerns that European academics may exit the UK in large numbers.

In a recent report, the Commons Education Select Committee expressed fears that a Brexit “brain drain” would threaten the international competitiveness and long-term success of UK universities. The committee also called on the government to guarantee the rights of European university staff after Brexit.

The HESA research comes just weeks after a YouGov survey revealed that 76 per cent of European academics in the UK said they were more likely to consider leaving UK higher education as a result of Brexit. It was reported in the same survey that 90 per cent of UK academics believe Brexit will have a negative impact on the UK higher education sector.

The Russell Group, it is predicted, would be particularly susceptible to such an exodus. The Group has emphasised the benefits to British universities of the free movement of academics within the EU to the UK and has stressed the value of universities being able to recruit staff from the EU without having to negotiate the UK visa system.

The University of Birmingham, a member of the Group, recently warned that European universities are using Brexit as an opportunity to poach academics from the UK. Analysis from Times Higher Education shows there were around 1700 EU academic staff working at Oxford in 2015-16, up from the 1400 in 2012-15, with only University College London having a larger number of EU academic staff.

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Speaking exclusively to Cherwell, Alastair Buchan, the University’s head of Brexit strategy, said: “Oxford’s non-UK EU staff members make an enormous contribution to the teaching, research and administrative activities of the University, and the continued uncertainty over their status and entitlement to remain in the UK is a significant factor for both them and the University.

“It would be no surprise, given the uncertainty about the future, if our EU colleagues were to be thinking about moving elsewhere within Europe. So—just as many others are doing—we would urge the government to settle this matter as quickly as possible.”

Fears over a Brexit exodus follow concerns that uncertainty and anxiety over the UK’s exit from the EU are preventing international students applying to UK universities.

It was recently reported that despite widespread opposition in the UK to general immigration remaining at its current rate, 58 per cent of Britons oppose a reduction in student immigration.

First-year English student Jorge López Llorente, who comes from Spain, suggested that Brexit “will impede lots of [international students] from applying” to Oxford, warning that Brexit is reinforcing perceptions of the British as nationalist and arrogant.

Llorente further noted that concerns over potential changes to the structure of fees and loans for international students are discouraging European applications, saying of a friend that he “may not be able to come to Oxford despite getting an offer because of the money”.

He added that mere rumours and misconceptions over Brexit are enough to deter international applications.