Monday, 8 August 2016

May you live in interesting times

The UK Government has been subject to some huge changes after the EU referendum result, writes Emma Pritchard, we can only wait and see how these changes will affect the Higher Education sector.

Following the vote by the UK to leave the European Union, the President of Universities UK, Dame Julie Goodfellow, issued a statement saying that “leaving the EU will create significant challenges for universities”. It is certainly true that the higher education sector is now in a difficult position and faces tough navigation through a minefield of Brexit-fuelled challenges. There are more unanswered questions across the sector, and across the country, than at the start of a Sherlock Holmes mystery.

The problem here is that we haven’t got a genius sleuth to find out what to do next, nor do we have Watson standing by to help with a hearty dose of common sense. We just have our newly formed cabinet and the Department for Exiting the European Union on the case and, unfortunately, this time we can’t just turn the television off if we don’t like the ending.

Photo: freestocks.org via: Public Domain
In Higher Education, the major issues are that of eligibility to remain in the UK for EU staff, the change of status for EU students, and whether universities will be able to access research funding. All these are issues for our politicians to decide in energetic discussions with our friends in the European Union – even though they might not be so friendly now.

One of the major sources of EU funding for research is the Horizon 2020 programme. At present we are still a fully-fledged member of this research endeavour, but there have already been reports of UK researchers being asked to step down from international projects. Research funding will be an important topic in negotiations as far as the sector is concerned. Yes - we are still a part of Horizon 2020, but if our researchers and academics are already receiving unfavourable treatment, just over a month after the referendum result, then perhaps this is a bigger cause for concern than we thought.

Another issue to contend with is what the British exit from the European Union will mean for the Erasmus+ programme. The Erasmus Scheme has been part of the sector since the 1980s, and it will be sorely missed by the students and Universities that play host to it. Naturally, you do not have to be in the European Union to access the Erasmus programme (it actually has partnerships in 37 countries) but no one is willing to predict what might happen after Britain takes the plunge and invokes Article 50. And the swift ejection of the Swiss from Erasmus following a referendum vote to restrict the free movement of people is at the forefront of everyone’s minds. The UK’s future access to this will also have to be a part of the negotiations.

At this point, you might find yourself thinking that surely even Sherlock’s most trying case had a few obvious answers?

Prime Minister Theresa May with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel
Photo: Crown Copyright - Credit: Tom Evans via Creative Commons (CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0)


Our new Prime Minister, Rt Hon Theresa May MP, might be thinking something similar. After a somewhat curtailed leadership race, May has replaced David Cameron at No. 10. The new Prime Minister has already met with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the French President Francois Hollande, and in public it was almost all smiles. Let’s hope that in private the conversations were equally good natured.

May’s catchphrase already seems to have become ‘Brexit means Brexit’ (although even Sherlock is probably still trying to work out what Brexit actually is). What is clear is the scale of what we don’t know about how the EU referendum will affect the wider country and the HE sector in particular. It is quite ironic to say that we really do not know a lot, considering we’re a sector based on knowledge and education, but in uncertain times we can only watch and wait to see what happens next.

(And maybe quietly hope for our own Sherlock Holmes to figure out the case).

Emma Pritchard
Placement Student
Office of the Vice-Chancellor

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