Our top priority throughout Brexit: people

This article originally appeared in The Scotsman on Thursday 27 September 2018.

Universities Scotland Director Alastair Sim gives his thoughts on how Brexit is impacting the higher education sector.

People. That’s our priority when it comes to Brexit. It has been since the vote came through and it remains our top priority whether the UK Government gets a deal or no deal.

There are more than 4,500 staff of EU nationality working in our 19 universities. That’s more than one in every ten members of our workforce. And Scottish higher education is home to another 22,400 EU students. In the case of our staff of EU nationality, they have often chosen to make Scotland their home; building lives, families and careers in good faith. They have already had to endure two years of uncertainty and instability in their personal and professional lives whilst bad politics plays out on stage; short-term political careers put before the careers, and livelihoods, of so many thousand others.

As personal as the impact of Brexit has been on some of the EU staff working in higher education for the last couple of years, it affects us all because these people’s careers benefit us all. Take the crisis in Britain’s prisons right now. One of the UK’s best researchers on prison education and alternatives to re-offending, working in Scotland at Edinburgh Napier University, is German. What about engineering? A skill set that we need to expand to our economy and meet the national ambition post-Brexit. The person helping to double the engineering capacity at the University of the West of Scotland is Slovenian. And let’s look at healthcare and our NHS. Sitting behind the important frontline care is the research into major life-limiting and life-shortening injury and disease. One of our pioneering researchers in the field of spinal cord recovery working at the University of Edinburgh, is German. Why would we choose to close our doors to the people who want to offer us so much?

By the time this piece is published, there may have been a breakthrough in negotiations. At the moment a ‘no deal’ looks like a real possibility. It is appalling that we are even thinking about crashing out of the EU without a framework for a close relationship with our neighbours. When the Prime Minister returned from Salzburg she tried to mitigate that risk by offering assurance that the 3 million EU citizens already in the UK would continue to be welcome.  That’s good, but it’s not enough.

We need cast-iron guarantees for the residency and work rights – and access to public services – for EU staff already working and studying in the UK, and their dependents. We also need certainty that the UK will be open to talent from the EU and beyond after Brexit. The mobility of people and ideas is the lifeblood of universities. Even the notoriously hawkish Migration Advisory Committee has emphasised this month that high-talent migration enhances our economy and our society.  We have a chance to create a better system in the immigration white paper, due this autumn from the UK Government. We know that would have public support, based on polling data of Scots, and across the UK, from August.

There are also Brexit implications for the Scottish Government to take decisions on. At present, EU students are required by EU law to be treated in the same way as Scottish students, including free full-time undergraduate education. We love having a diverse and multinational student population. We’d want that to continue and we’d want to continue the guarantees that are in place for all students already here. That’s also been the intention for EU students in the post-Brexit implementation period. We’d hoped to be able to have a planned transition to a new outcome where the approximately £90m of Scottish Government money currently supporting EU students is re-purposed for higher education priorities including widening access. However, crashing out of the EU with no deal and no implementation period risks a sudden collapse in student numbers for some courses, and major disruption for staff. We need to develop an urgent contingency plan with Scottish Government.

There is so much more at stake for the university sector in a deal or no-deal Brexit. I don’t have the space to mention the research funding that flows from horizon 2020 or the need for the UK government to underwrite EU grants so multi-year, multi-million pound projects aren’t left in limbo. I have focussed on people because higher education is a sector whose success is entirely dependent on its people. Every globally successful higher education sector has a high proportion of staff from outside its own borders. That fact is not going to change because the UK voted to leave the EU. British HE is great in large part to staff from the EU. If we could imprint one message on the minds of negotiators over the coming weeks it would be that.