The government must clarify its Brexit priorities for higher education

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Our universities boost the country’s reputation globally, attract the best talent from abroad and produce high-skilled workers and cutting-edge research. They are world leaders and are vital to a successful UK economy but Brexit has the very real potential to jeopardise this.

Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union presents many challenges for higher education and with the government yet to provide any meaningful details about its negotiating position, the sector is rightly concerned. That is why my colleagues and I on the House of Commons Education Committee believe Brexit was an appropriate and important place to start our work on higher education.

Earlier this year, the Committee’s remit expanded to include the government’s higher education policy. We subsequently launched our inquiry into the impact of exiting the EU on the sector. We wanted to assess the potential risks, understand the opportunities and say what ministers’ priorities should be when they sit down with their counterparts from 27 other countries.

But for our findings to be informative, authoritative, and influential, they need to accurately reflect the views and experiences of those on the frontline. We are therefore extremely pleased to have received hundreds of written submissions from vice-chancellors, academics, students and business groups, among others, following our call for evidence. We are also looking forward to visiting universities around the country in the coming weeks and questioning stakeholders, including the government, at our public sessions.

A key area of our inquiry is the implications of changes to immigration rules for EU nationals. With over 100,000 European students currently studying in Britain and many more Britons studying throughout Europe, the decisions made by the government with regards to Brexit stand to have a significant impact on the future of higher education in the UK.

Free movement has helped foster a deeply interconnected research and education community across the continent, but Britain could soon find itself on the outside, struggling to attract gifted students and top academics from the EU to our universities. Will this lead to a decline in their world rankings or damage them financially? Some may argue, on the other hand, that it will actually open up doors for the best and brightest from the rest of the world.

Similarly, we want to know what Brexit will mean for the Erasmus+ programme, which has allowed more than 200,000 British students to study all over Europe, experiencing others cultures and learning other languages, since its inception in the 1980s. The scheme is also financially significant to the sector, with tangible benefits for the entire British economy. If Britain finds itself locked out of the club, how will such a shortfall be addressed and similar opportunities ensured for future generations?

We will examine how British universities can remain competitive in a post-Brexit Europe. Withdrawal from the EU puts access to a vast pool of resources, funding and joint working at risk. It is vital that our institutions have the support they need in order to sustain Britain’s success in higher education.

Universities play a critical role in the success of our country and if this is to continue, then we must fully understand the challenges, as well as any opportunities, that Brexit brings and be clear in our priorities going into the negotiations.

You can follow the work of the Education Select Committee and the inquiry into the impact of exiting the European Union on higher education here and on Twitter.  

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