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UK universities “very concerned” about no-deal Brexit despite extensive preparations

Universities in the UK report having taken widespread precautions to prepare a no-deal Brexit, but more than three quarters are “very” or “extremely” concerned about the prospect, a survey by UUK has revealed, with some institutions already experiencing significant damage.

50% of institutions have experienced a change in demand from EU students, according to the survey. Photo: Unsplash

80% said they were very or extremely concerned about the impact no-deal will have on their institutions

Surveying a total of 75 universities, UUK found that its members were making “significant arrangements” to mitigate the potential impact of a no-deal outcome.

“Such an outcome could leave an indelible footprint on the higher education landscape for years”

But despite the preparations, institutions reported concerns about the impact that a no-deal Brexit would have on student and staff recruitment and retention, and access to research programs and funding.

And a significant number of institutions reported feeling the negative impact of a looming Brexit on student recruitment and international collaborations.

While 50% of institutions have experienced a change in demand from EU students, more than 55% have experienced a change in the level of collaboration with overseas partners and almost 60% have lost existing or potential staff members to overseas institutions.

“While the news that universities feel prepared for no-deal in some capacity is reassuring it is clear that the implications of exit under these circumstances remain largely unknown.

“It is in the government’s power to alleviate many of these concerns,” Julia Buckingham, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of Brunel University London, said in a statement.

“Despite working tirelessly to offset the potential implications of no-deal, such an outcome could leave an indelible footprint on the higher education landscape for years to come.”

All respondents acknowledged being prepared for no-deal to some extent, but 80% said they were very or extremely concerned about the impact no-deal will have on their institutions.

Nearly a third of respondents (61%) believed either student recruitment (34%) or access to research programmes and funding (27%) would be the most likely victims of a no-deal Brexit.

Among the steps taken by institutions in view of a no-deal, 93% reported having encouraged EU staff and students to apply for the settled status scheme, while some reported having prepared, or considered preparing, stores of essential supplies.

Speaking to The Guardian, some vice-chancellors raised concerns over shortages of essential chemicals and gases for their laboratories, food for students in their residences and even toilet paper.

Those with teaching hospitals as part of NHS trusts said they were most concerned about pharmaceutical and other medical supplies and have discussed contingency plans with their suppliers.

The survey found that nine in 10 universities have explained the steps taken by the government to underwrite EU funding to researchers involved in EU-funded projects, and have established which Erasmus+ mobility programs will be covered by the European Commission and which by the UK government guarantee.

Almost all respondents have evaluated risks to key supplies and contracts.

Responding to the findings of the report, Labour’s shadow education secretary Angela Rayner said a “reckless no-deal Brexit would be disastrous” for UK universities.

“Nearly one in five university academics are EU nationals and they all face uncertainty and anxiety about their future.”

A chaotic and damaging no-deal Brexit will also have a devastating impact on the ability of UK universities to recruit students from EU countries and access research funding, she added.

“Yet the new education secretary has been unable to give universities even the most basic reassurance that he has any credible plan,” Rayner continued.

Last week, Scotland’s higher education minister Richard Lochhead warned uncertainty over the UK’s departure from the EU may mean Scotland is no longer able to provide free tuition to European students after 2021.

“There are genuine fears in Scotland how any future arrangements under a no-deal Brexit would affect people coming here to work and study,” he said.

“There are genuine fears in Scotland”

“We have given a guarantee to pay EU students for the 2020/21 academic year but clearly when we are not in Europe then we will have to decide what we can do thereafter to protect out reputation internationally.”

Lochhead added that any potential loss of access to Freedom of Movement “would be like a wrecking ball to our science and research sector”.

“And anything that puts up barriers to this flow of people and ideas will make Scotland a far less attractive place for globally mobile researchers, students and staff,” he said.

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