Brexit: Playing the cards we've been dealt

by Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli

The UK’s departure from the European Union – if it goes ahead – would be the single greatest shock for UK Higher Education in living memory.

And while it is right for the sector to highlight what many of us see as the abject folly of Brexit, it is also incumbent upon us as university leaders to consider how the future relationship between the UK and EU can be made to work best in our mutual interests.

That is not to say that there is any upside from Brexit – quite categorically there is not.  But we must play the cards we’ve been dealt and try as far as possible to mitigate the damage to the sector, our economy and our society.

While finances and access to European investment and funding opportunities clearly play a major role in this, the foremost concern for universities in the UK is, and has always been, people – that is to say the continued ability to work in partnership with colleagues in academic collaborations across the continent, and to continue to attract talented researchers to undertake their work in the UK.

It is absolutely vital for the future of the sector that the UK actively seeks full association in the Horizon Europe programme.  The UK Government has committed to exploring UK participation in the scheme and recognises the importance of ensuring the UK’s continued attractiveness for students and researchers – and while the most obvious solution would be simply to accept continued freedom of movement, at the very least we have to ensure the closest possible relationship with the EU on research and innovation in the event of Brexit.

Only then can we ensure that the UK’s university sector is able to perform at anything close to its full potential.

But let’s be clear – while the UK clearly has the most to lose – working in collaboration benefits our European colleagues too, giving access to the often exceptional academic expertise on this side of the channel and offering the chance to tap into these skills

While the negotiations between the EU and the UK on Brexit are often technical and bogged down in detail, the continued close relationship on research is arguably the most obvious win-win scenario in the whole process.

Simply put, it is in nobody’s interest for this situation to change.  Neither side has anything to gain, while both sides have much to lose.

And as well as working across borders, we must do everything in our power to ensure UK universities remain attractive destinations for students and staff from across Europe.

At Russell Group universities alone, there are almost 50,000 EU-domiciled students and 26,500 staff from across the EU.  As an example, my own institution, the University of Glasgow, is home to over 950 non-UK EU staff – representing 13.2 per cent of our total workforce, and 21 per cent of our academic research staff – and over 3,000 EU students.

These are people who – as well as enriching our campus and the culture of our City – make huge contributions to the ground-breaking research which is a major plank of our economy, including Precision Medicine, Quantum Technology, nanofabrication and FinTech.

Regardless of the outcome of the Brexit process, the UK’s universities will continue to be bastions of internationalism, multiculturalism and academic excellence – but we will only be able to reach our full potential and play our role in tackling the global issues of the 21st century to the fullest extent if we can continue to collaborate with colleagues across borders and welcome the best and brightest minds from Europe to study and work here. 

I urge politicians – in London and Brussels – to ensure we have this opportunity.  To do otherwise would diminish not just the UK but the whole of Europe’s ability to meet head on the major social, economic, scientific and environmental challenges of the 21st century, and must not be allowed to happen.

And given the scale of the many challenges facing our societies in the coming years, it is absolutely vital that we are able to marshal all of our continent’s energies and skills in a great collective effort to meet them.

Published Jan. 29, 2019 10:38 AM - Last modified Sep. 28, 2021 1:58 PM