I've just returned from my most recent set of meetings in Brussels. Over the past year, I've been involved in a lot of meetings in London and Brussels – all to discuss Brexit and the consequences for higher education. They have been, predominantly, gloomy. The expectation is that higher education in Britain (and in the rest of Europe) could be profoundly damaged.
Of course I respect the outcome of the referendum. But to me – as a Remainer: if we are to achieve genuine prosperity out of the EU, it is even more important to work to secure the best Brexit outcome that we can.
For us at the University of Warwick, there are four aspects to securing the best chances for us to contribute to future prosperity. Non-UK EU citizens need to be given the same rights as they have had under EU membership. Mobility between Britain and the continent needs to continue. The Erasmus student exchange programme must be sustained. We must secure as full access as possible to future research funding – so-called ‘Framework 9’.
The Government's paper setting out its stance on Horizon 2020 and any successor scheme has warm words on the future of science and innovation collaboration with the EU, but we need to see tangible commitments to address all four of those very real issues. Clearly, if true, the reports in the media today on Government's current thinking on the future of free movement and the future status of non-UK EU citizens do not bring much reassurance to those of us working and studying in universities.
With that in mind, it doesn’t seem to me that we are seeing very genuine engagement now. Debate swirls around the level of the exit bill the UK needs to pay. The argument of the British Government - that it is an annual agreement, not a longer term one – doesn’t hold water to me, and seems simply to prolong and deepen the stalemate in negotiations. If I said to my bank that I will pay the mortgage this year, but won't commit to pay next year, they wouldn’t take my custom very seriously. The UK has committed to programmes, and will have to pay. This, along with the future situation for Ireland, and the status of non-UK EU residents - are eminently solvable issues.
With these pragmatic matters settled, we may be able move to phase two. It is only once we get there, I fear, that genuine engagement begins and higher education can really come to the fore.
There is a real win-win for the UK and the EU, when we eventually reach this point. All of Europe – the UK and the continent, gains from student mobility. All of Europe gains from excellent research programmes. All of Europe gains from the networks from which so much exceptional work and impact follows. Not one of Warwick’s partners in the Guild of European Research Intensive Universities sees a hard Brexit as being in their interests. Every one of them wants to engage on positive steps for the future.
Today, the Government has published a paper with some hopeful words on research collaboration after Brexit. We now need real consultation with universities to try and secure all four of the critical aspects I have highlighted as being vital to universities for our future contributions post-Brexit.
Nevertheless, it does open the possibility of a positive future relationship between British universities and continental ones. We will no doubt hear more depressing news and soundbites about Brexit negotiations over the months to come. From my perspective, it might all still go wrong. But there is still a scenario in which continued and productive engagement between the institutions and their students and academics can continue, and can deepen further. It really will be in all of our interests, and it is something well worth fighting for. Let’s hope that discussion can start properly soon.