Brexit – At What Price for Higher Education and Research?

While Brexit will create challenges for most sectors of the Scottish and UK economy, it poses a particular set of issues for universities, colleges and research organisations, writes Ross Laird, Director of Grayling Scotland.

This was the theme of a recent seminar on Brexit, held by Grayling and legal advisers, Anderson Strathern.  Keynote speeches from Universities Scotland, Universities UK, and the Principal of the University of Glasgow, outlined the challenges faced at each level by universities.
What was evident from the seminar is that Brexit still poses far more questions than answers at this stage, and that the education sector, in particular, has a considerable exposure to Brexit risks.
Universities Scotland highlighted the potential impact of Brexit on students, exchange programmes, research, funding and staff. Some 10% of Scotland’s student population and 23% of researchers are from the EU – but some areas of research, such as artificial intelligence, have a particularly high number of EU nationals.
These concerns were echoed by Universities UK, who highlighted the need for clarity on the long term residency rights of EU staff, ensuring on-going financing for the sector, and continuation of participation in European research and exchange programmes.
While the demand for safeguards in the education sector seem reasonable, is there a special case to be made for our universities, colleges and research bodies? Do they need some special consideration in the Brexit negotiations? And is there a particular Scottish issue?
Certainly the education and research sector is disproportionally large in Scotland, but it is also a linchpin in the UK Government’s new industrial strategy, which wants to ensure the UK is the go-to nation for scientists, innovators and investors in technology. In both cases, this gives the sector an opportunity to extend considerable leverage on both Holyrood and Westminster.
The UK Government’s White Paper on the EU (published 2nd Feb) largely reflects pre-announcements on continuing to fund research and participate in collaborative research. Within the paper are a number of reassurances about interim measures and direction of travel, but there is much that still needs to be resolved.
Immigration will be particularly difficult square to circle – how can the UK control immigration, yet ensure its universities, colleges and research institutions remain open and accessible to a global audience?
The UK and Scottish Governments both understand that there are no easy answers to these questions. It is, however, up to the sector to ensure that their voice continues to be heard as we enter the fraught exit negotiations.
While many at the seminar expressed regret at the consequences of Brexit for the education sector, the advice going forward was to engage as constructively as possible. There will be changes to our relationship with Europe, but those who are willing to present solutions and explore options are more likely to be heard.

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