We can’t be Global Britain without EU staff and students

The UK's global research ambitions will amount to nothing without the input of staff and students from the EU, says Simon Goldhill

Simon Goldhill is Professor in Greek Literature and Culture and fellow and Director of Studies in Classics at King’s College, Cambridge. He is also Foreign-Secretary and Vice President of the British Academy.

Research and higher education have been critical to tackling the Covid-19 pandemic, in the development of vaccines and vaccination engagement, and in understanding the short- and long-term impacts of the pandemic.

But our new briefing highlights the vital importance of the importance of EU higher education staff and students for the ongoing health and prosperity of UK research and higher education institutions. The current funding landscape and framework for the circulation of ideas and talent may impact the UK’s ability to attract and retain UK and EU higher education staff and students, hindering it in its ambition to be a science superpower.

There is cause for some concern. EU higher education staff and students account for a critical share of the UK higher education sector. In 2019–2020, 17 per cent of higher education staff were EU nationals. Students who lived in an EU member country prior to commencing their UK-based course accounted for 5.5 per cent of undergraduate students and 6.8 per cent of postgraduate students.

These individuals occupy a variety of roles. They include teaching and research but also professional fields such as IT, finance, alumni relations and administration. They bring invaluable language skills and distinctive perspectives to the higher education sector. EU higher education staff accounted for at least 10 per cent of staff in every jurisdiction in the UK. In addition to their cultural and intellectual contributions, EU staff and students benefit the UK economy and generate vital economic activity.

Our analysis also shows just how essential EU staff and students have been to the success of the SHAPE disciplines – the social sciences, humanities, and arts – in the UK. In 2019–2020, four of the top five disciplines with the highest shares of EU higher education staff were in SHAPE disciplines (for instance, Modern languages, Classics and Politics and international studies) while the top three groups of disciplines with the highest shares of EU students were in Business and Management studies, Creative arts and design and Social Sciences.

It is no coincidence that the UK is currently a world-leading player in research in these disciplines, which help create and nourish a positive future for people, the economy, and the environment.

Shape up for Global Britain

However, the UK’s departure from the EU and changes to the framework for the circulation of ideas and talent with countries in the EU and beyond present an unprecedented challenge to our higher education and research sector. These changes include a new immigration system as well as alterations to the tuition fee status and eligibility for tuition fee loans for new European Economic Area and Swiss students, who from this month are no longer eligible for home fees status and tuition fee loans.

The EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement did not include a pathway for association to the Erasmus+ programme, the EU’s programme supporting mobility in education, training, youth and sport. In December 2020, the UK Government announced the launch of the Turing scheme, but although billed as a replacement for Erasmus+, the scheme is restricted to outward student mobility only – it does not include funding for incoming higher education staff. The Erasmus+ programme has contributed to creating a vibrant environment for work and study and has been pivotal to the UK’s ability to attract EU higher education and staff. 66.7 per cent of incoming undergraduate students and 63 per cent of incoming postgraduate students through the Erasmus+ programme opted to study a SHAPE subject. The UK will therefore need to continue to find ways to facilitate the circulation of talent and ideas including for short-term mobility.

If we want to boost our international collaborations and networks, the UK immigration system must find a way to provide long-term stability and certainty for those wishing to study and/or work here. The UK government must also strengthen outward mobility, which is critical to developing research networks and partnerships, widening research dissemination and improving the overall health and liveliness of UK higher education institutions.

These measures will be critical to safeguard excellence in SHAPE and, by doing so, strengthen our ability to devise a positive future and help drive pandemic recovery.

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