Planning for No Deal on Brexit

As the date for the U.K.'s planned withdrawal from the European Union approaches, universities plan for a "no-deal" Brexit while hoping that won't happen.

February 27, 2019
Getty Images

As a March 29 date for Britain’s planned exit from the European Union fast approaches, British universities are bracing for potentially dire consequences if the United Kingdom exits without a deal.

“Crashing out with no deal is the worst possible outcome for our universities,” said Joanna Burton, a senior policy analyst for the Russell Group, an association of 24 leading research universities in the U.K. “We’ve said before, but it’s worth repeating that a no-deal Brexit is one of the biggest threats that our universities have ever faced.”

The vast majority of those working in British higher education oppose exiting the E.U., and university leaders and higher education groups campaigned for remaining in the union in the lead-up to the June 2016 referendum on the question. University leaders were especially concerned about the consequences of ending free movement -- a condition of membership in the union, which allows citizens of other E.U. nations to live and work in the Britain under the same terms as British citizens -- and about the risk of jeopardizing future access to European research and education funding programs.

Universities UK, an association of 136 universities across the country, has published a briefing on the no-deal scenario warning that in the event Britain exits without a deal, it could lose its ability to participate in Horizon 2020, a nearly 80 billion euro (about $90 billion) E.U.-wide research funding program, and Erasmus+, an E.U. program that funds student exchange throughout Europe.

The U.K. government has committed to underwrite payments of certain Horizon 2020 awards involving multinational research teams that are open to applicants from non-E.U. countries. But access to other funding streams, including European Research Council and Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions funding, would be lost if the U.K. were to exit without a deal.

The U.K. government has also committed to underwrite the payment of already-committed Erasmus+ funds for British students going on exchanges, but the commitment does not extend to any future awards. “Nor has the government confirmed or said anything about replacement funds, which is something that we’re worried about,” said Anne-May Janssen, the head of European engagement for Universities UK international. Universities UK has launched a campaign, #SupportStudyAbroad, urging the U.K. government to commit to funding student exchanges in the event it is unable to negotiate continued participation in Erasmus+ after a no-deal Brexit.

University groups say the far preferable option is to exit with a deal. The draft withdrawal agreement negotiated with the European Union -- which was rejected last month by Parliament -- allows for continued participation in Horizon 2020 and Erasmus + through the end of 2020, when the current programs are scheduled to end.

“We could just continue to participate in these programs until the end, which is the end of 2020,” said Janssen. After that she said participation in future E.U. programs -- including the research program that will succeed Horizon 2020 when it ends in two years, Horizon Europe -- would be subject to negotiations between the U.K. and the E.U.

“But I think it’s important to say that although for the U.K. it would be the very first time that we would negotiate access to the European programs, other associated (non-E.U.) countries do it every seven years,” Janssen said. “It’s not something new, so I’m sure we could negotiate access to these programs as well.”

Burton, of the Russell Group, said another major concern around a no-deal exit would be the status of E.U. nationals working and studying in the U.K. The government has proposed that in the event of a no-deal Brexit, it will require E.U. nationals who arrive in the U.K. after March 29 to apply for “European temporary leave to remain” in order to stay longer than three months. This temporary status would be good for three years, after which individuals could apply for status under a new immigration system scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1, 2021.

“We are very concerned that three years would not be long enough, particularly for those coming from the E.U. to do a Ph.D. or courses such as medicine or engineering, which are longer than three years in the U.K.,” Burton said.

“Whether there is a deal or not, we want to see the government uphold the promise it made to implement the E.U. Settlement Scheme for E.U. nationals until the end of 2020,” Burton said. The E.U. Settlement Scheme allows individuals who will have been in the U.K. for five years by the end of 2020 to apply for settled status, which lets them stay and work indefinitely. Prior to reaching the five-year threshold, they can apply for pre-settled status, which enables them to stay until they reach the five-year point and are eligible to apply for settled status.

It remains unclear if a deal will gain approval from Parliament as the March 29 deadline grows closer. ​ And it remains possible Brexit could be delayed or even canceled.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Theresa May promised Parliament that it would have the opportunity to take a vote to delay Brexit if it does not approve a negotiated withdrawal agreement. Britain, she said, will “only leave without a deal on March 29 if there is explicit consent for that outcome.”

And the day before, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, backed a second Brexit referendum.

Ludovic Highman, a senior research associate for the Centre for Global Higher education at University College London, said the best outcome for universities is a second referendum in which citizens vote to remain in the E.U. after all.

Highman is analyzing data he obtained from interviews with administrators at 12 universities -- eight in England, two in Scotland, one in Northern Ireland and one in Wales -- about the challenges posed by Brexit. “One of the biggest themes that we’re seeing is in terms of research funding,” he said. “Universities are very worried, because obviously a significant percentage of their funding comes from the E.U. Currently the biggest beneficiaries of Horizon 2020 [across the whole of Europe] are Oxford, Cambridge and UCL.” Two other U.K. universities -- Imperial College London and the University of Edinburgh -- are among the top 10 beneficiaries continentwide.

And at less well-known, less research-intensive universities, Highman said, the proportion of research funding that comes from the E.U. can be substantial even if the absolute sums are far smaller: Highman has found that more than 40 U.K. universities depend on E.U. funding for more than 20 percent of all their research income.

“Who’s going to replace that funding?” he asked. “Who within the U.K. at the point of exit from the E.U. is going to prioritize research funding when there are going to be so many other priorities to fund?

“What really needs to be avoided is the no-deal scenario, which would cut off everything,” Highman said. “Even if the U.K. were to negotiate access to Horizon Europe for the future, those negotiations could take a year or two, and there will be a gap.”

Others have argued fears about research funding are misplaced. Fifteen academics signed a letter to The Guardian published in January arguing that universities have nothing to fear from a no-deal Brexit.

“British universities are the strongest and most attractive in Europe,” they wrote. “With a clean sovereign Brexit, British universities get the best of both worlds. They escape the European commission’s shackles imposed through the withdrawal agreement and, like other successful third-party countries (Israel, Norway and Switzerland, for example), can participate in E.U. programs like Horizon 2020 at will,” they wrote.

“The idea that whole countries should be forced into political servitude in order to qualify for academic or scientific mutual exchange is ridiculous, illogical and completely without evidence.”


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


We have retired comments and introduced Letters to the Editor. Share your thoughts »

Today’s News from Inside Higher Ed

Inside Higher Ed’s Quick Takes

Back to Top