Brexit and EU academics

08 August 2019

With debates over the UK's future relationship with the Europe continuing, our senior policy analyst Dr. Hollie Chandler looks at what impact Brexit uncertainty is having on the recruitment and retention of EU academics:

To deliver the political promises made to EU citizens during the referendum, the Government should have started with early legal guarantees over their residency and working rights. It is astonishing that more than three years later, despite establishing the Settlement Scheme, these legal guarantees are still not in place.

But how far has this and, other uncertainties around Brexit, impacted on the higher education sector and specifically, on the recruitment and retention of EU staff? At the Russell Group we’ve been analysing HESA data on academic staff to better understand this. We’ve used the latest figures to consider how recruitment trends have changed over time and assessed the impact of the referendum on flows of EU academics to and from UK universities.

The analysis I present in this article reveals some concerning shifts in the patterns of EU mobility since the referendum, with more EU academics leaving UK universities and a slowing in growth of those arriving from overseas. Unless these trends are reversed, it is only a matter of time before the number of EU academics leaving our universities exceeds the number arriving.

Our new Prime Minister must address this situation as a priority and take action to provide certainty and reassurance to EU academics. If not, the UK risks losing many talented EU teachers, researchers, technicians and innovators who are so fundamental to the success of our sector.

How has the number of EU academics at UK universities changed over time?

Although the number of EU academics working in the UK increased by 4% in 2017/18, this was the lowest level of growth for more than a decade.

The slowing of growth appears to have started in 2014/15, when year-on-year growth dropped to 8% compared to 12% in 2013/14. Whilst uncertainty around the UK’s future relationship with the EU, triggered by David Cameron’s pledge in 2013 to hold a referendum, may have started to impact on the decision making of EU academics, it is important to note that growth in UK and non-EU academics also slowed between 2013/14 and 2015/16, so there are likely to have been other factors at play.

What is interesting is that between 2015/16 and 2017/18, whilst growth in EU academics continued to fall (from 7% year-on-year growth to 4%), growth in non-EU and UK academics increased, suggesting that once the promised referendum became a reality, it had a specific impact on EU academics.

Has the number of EU academics choosing to leave UK universities increased since the referendum?

Between 2015/16 and 2016/17 (latest available data for leavers) there was an 11% rise in the number of EU academics leaving Russell Group universities (with 4,280 leaving in 2016/17 compared to 3,865 in 2015/16).

This increase in turnover of EU academics is especially striking given that over the same period, the number of non-EU and UK academics leaving Russell Group universities increased by just 4% and 5% respectively. This contrasts with the growth rate of new academic starters, which was far lower than the growth of leavers in the case of EU academics, and roughly equivalent between different nationalities (5% UK, 3% EU, 3% non-EU).

Some disciplines have been hit harder than others by the increase in EU academics choosing to leave. In 2016/17, EU academics at Russell Group universities made up a disproportionately high percentage of staff leaving posts in a number of strategically important subjects such as biosciences, physics, chemistry and engineering. For example, EU nationals represented 27% of academics working in chemistry departments in 2016/17, but a much higher proportion, 36%, of academics who left chemistry posts that year.

Where are new EU academic starters coming from?

Between 2016/17 and 2017/18, the proportion of new EU academics recruited by Russell Group from overseas fell from 48% to 43%, meaning a greater proportion of the EU nationals recruited to academic positions last year were already based in the UK. This trend is true for all UK universities, suggesting the sector may be finding it increasingly difficult to attract EU academics from abroad, relying instead on recruiting those graduating from UK universities or academics that have recently left posts in the UK.

Reversing the trend

Unless trends in EU academic flows over recent years are reversed, it is only a matter of time before the number of EU academics leaving our universities exceeds the number arriving. For any Prime Minister interested in the health of a sector that is a major national asset, and fundamental to our future economic success, this should be a concern.

The Government has introduced the Settlement Scheme for EU nationals already in the UK, which is a welcome first step. However, the rights afforded to those registering under the scheme have not yet been enshrined in UK law. Doing so as soon as possible is essential to provide certainty for EU academics and others. Now that Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement Bill is dead, the obvious legislative vehicle for this is the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill currently before Parliament. This should be amended to put the rights of those covered by the Settlement Scheme on a legal footing.

Using this bill to secure these rights for all EU nationals arriving before January 2021, deal or no-deal, would also avoid the need for Government’s proposed European Temporary Leave to Remain policy, which would otherwise apply in the event of no-deal. Dropping this policy, which would only give EU nationals three years’ leave before being subject to the as-yet-to-be decided future immigration system, would provide much needed certainty for those looking to relocate to the UK.

Given the current gridlock in Westminster, this suggestion is offered more in hope than expectation. But with growing concern over the prospect of a no-deal Brexit in October, this issue is not going to go away. The longer EU academics have to wait for legal clarity over their immigration status and certainty over the UK’s access to EU research programmes, the more likely it is problems in recruiting and retaining EU staff will intensify.

Our message to the new Prime Minister is clear: this situation needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency or EU academics will take their talents elsewhere.

Russell Group has access to HESA/HEIDI data under an existing agreement with HESA. The analysis in this article was performed on data provided by HESA from the HESA staff (excluding atypical) FPE database for 2014/15, 2015/16, 2016/7 and 2017/18 containing characteristics of academic starters and leavers. Copyright Higher Education Statistics Agency Limited. Neither the Higher Education Statistics Agency Limited nor HESA Services Limited can accept responsibility for any inferences or conclusions derived by third parties from data or other information supplied by HESA Services.

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