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Trinity’s Senior Tutor on the consequences of a ‘hard Brexit’ for UK universities

Trinity Fellow and Professor of European Union Law and Employment Law at Cambridge, Catherine Barnard, told the House of Commons’ Education Select Committee that a ‘hard Brexit’ would ‘promptly cut off the excellent staff and students coming from the EU at the moment.’

As a witness to the select committee’s first inquiry into the impact of exiting the EU on higher education, Professor Barnard said the lives of EU staff at Cambridge had already been ‘turned upside down’ by the uncertainty following the June 2016 vote and EU undergraduate applications for 2017 admission were 14% down.

A survey of postgraduate students who had turned down a place at Cambridge cited anti-immigrant sentiment, the devaluation of the pound, and uncertainty about international research collaborations.

Professor Catherine Barnard
Professor Catherine Barnard

Professor Barnard, who is Senior Tutor at Trinity College, was giving evidence to the select committee at Pembroke College, Oxford, alongside Professor Alastair Buchan, Head of Brexit Strategy at Oxford, Professor Alistair Fitt, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford Brookes, and Professor John Latham, Vice-Chancellor of Coventry and Chair of University Alliance.

As the UK higher education sector grapples with the significant impact of Brexit on EU staff and students, and the implications for the country’s global research reputation, other countries are poised to reap benefits from Britain’s departure from the EU, she warned.

We are the tall poppy, we get more European Research Council funding than any other member state, we are seen as the best. Germany is number two, but significantly behind in terms of funding, and they want some of that action.

Germany and Ireland were actively seeking British academics and high achieving students from the EU.

Germany is working very hard to see if they can attract British academics to Germany, offering positions that have no teaching obligations, but research-based posts, and in Germany, much of the academic work is now done in English, so Germany is snapping at our heels.

Particularly in the field of maths, the German universities are really looking to tap into the pool of talent that we are getting from Hungary and Poland.

That could present a challenge for institutions such as Trinity, whose reputation is in part related to its brilliance in maths, which Prof Barnard said, ‘has much to do with the input of our Hungarian, Polish and Romanian students.’

Many of those students would not be able to afford university fees once the UK had the left the EU. So if UK universities wanted the best students there were be a cost to institutions in terms of providing bursaries and scholarships.

To maintain the high quality of UK universities, a sector-specific deal guaranteeing free movement of researchers, students and academic-related staff would be vital, she said.

We are net recipients of EU staff coming to the UK. They are trained and funded elsewhere so we benefit from what they bring to us.

If a visa system was introduced for EU workers and students, it should not be like the existing ‘extremely cumbersome and highly labour intensive’ scheme for those from non-EU countries, such as India and China, Professor Barnard said.

That is our great concern: that we have to apply a full visa scheme to both EU and non-EU migrant workers and students.

You can watch the Commons’ Education Select Committee hearing of 11 January on Parliamentary TV.

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