citizens' europe

The great Brexit brain drain

UK universities, which contribute 2.8% of GDP, are already seeing a decline in applications from abroad as the country nears its exit from the European Union

Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford Louise Richardson.
Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford Louise Richardson.Carlos Rosillo

A large question mark hangs over Britain’s university sector. Academics, researchers and students from the European Union who have chosen to make their careers in the United Kingdom say they feel unsure about their future in the wake of last year’s Brexit vote: should they remain at some of the world’s leading educational institutions or move abroad to centers that may not enjoy the same recognition, but whose governments are more welcoming.

Meanwhile, these institutions, which contribute a respectable 2.8% to the UK’s GDP, have been joining forces to pressure Downing Street in the hope of reducing the impact of divorce with the EU as much as possible. But the consequences will be felt: the number of people applying to UK universities from abroad has already fallen, while 47% of EU citizens resident in Britain are considering leaving, according to a recent survey by Deloitte LLP.

“A university’s excellence comes from its academics,” says Louise Richardson, the Irish-born Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University. And if that talent leaves, universities lose their prestige, and along with it, the millions of euros in EU research funding that will be replaced by huge tax increases, or, as researcher at Queen Mary University of London Barbara Petrongolo argues, EU students will have to pay more than their British counterparts. Over the last 13 months, says Richardson, there has been a 14% drop in applications to British universities.

The people facing the biggest problem are those who have already begun their doctorate Paolo Ruffino, Lincoln University

The UK receives more EU educational funding than any other member state (£4 billion, or €4.46 billion, in 2016), followed by Germany and Spain. It also generates more scientific output. That said, a quarter of all theses are produced jointly with EU researchers. “Universities here depend on internationalization,” says Marcos Centeno, a Spanish-born researcher at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). The school illustrates the problems that Brexit will create for many British educational institutions: half of its teaching staff is from overseas, and since the Brexit vote applications for 2018 have fallen by 40%. Its Department of Japanese and Korean Studies, where Centeno teaches, is the most important in the world and could face closure for lack of funding and a brain drain. “Of the 60 people on my team, only three or four are British,” he says.

A student at the University of Lincoln.
A student at the University of Lincoln.carlos rosillo

Rocco Micchiavello, from the London School of Economics, is more optimistic, and says that regardless of Brexit, the exchange of ideas between Britain and the EU will continue. But he also admits, like most academics in the UK, that research funding will be hit hard by the withdrawal – for example, the grants given by Horizon 2020, the European Commission’s research and innovation program, the European Research Council, and Erasmus+.

But Petra Kammerevert, president of the European Parliament’s cultural committee, says “it is too early” to assess the impact of Brexit. Similarly, Santiago Fisas, a Spanish member of the European Popular Party, doubts there will be a brain drain because the UK “needs to hold onto talent.” That said, the data seems to say the opposite. And then there is the growing feeling among EU citizens based in the UK that they are no longer welcome: “If this country doesn’t want me, then I don’t want to stay here,” says Greek Cypriot María Chatzichristodoulou of London South Bank University.

A university’s excellence comes from its academics

  Louise Richardson, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University

European Research Council grants are awarded on a personal basis, meaning that an EU researcher who undertakes a project in the UK, which receives 22% of ERC funding out of 44 countries, could take their money elsewhere. “It is critical for our economy,” argues Welsh European MP Jill Evans of the Green Party.

Louise Richardson of Oxford University says that European universities are now contacting researchers there with ERC funding, pointing out that one of the ERC’s requirements is that at least half of the duration of a project must be spent in an EU member state. “I would do the same” she says, noting that two of her best academics have already gone. Cambridge University declined to comment on the impact of Brexit. Paolo Ruffino, an Italian researcher and lecturer at Lincoln University says: “There is a lot of anxiety. The people facing the biggest problem are those who have already begun their doctorate. Making plans is difficult for them.”

Oxford University – like others in the Russell Group lobby, which represents 24 of Britain’s top universities, and which currently employ 20% of European academics in the UK – says it intends to take an “inventive” approach toward the looming abyss. Its vice-chancellor has already raised “a couple of million pounds” [a little over €2 million] to spend on holding onto top EU talent. Jill Evans recommends opening a campus in Europe so as not to lose ERC funding. “We cannot rule out any options,” she says.

UK universities in figures

  • Some 330,000 joint UK-EU publications were produced between 2003 and 2012, more than Portugal, Norway and Ireland combined.
  • The United Kingdom coordinates more than 20% of EU-financed projects as part of Horizon 2020, followed by Spain and Germany.
  • More than 200,000 EU students currently attend UK universities, 30% of the total.
  • British universities generate some €82.5 billion, contributing 2.8% of GDP.
  • UK universities generate more than 750,000 jobs.
  • The UK, with just 0.9% of the world's population, produces 15.9% of leading scientific articles in specialist publications.

SOURCE: Universities UK.

English version by Nick Lyne.

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