For months now we have been thinking about the possibility of a no-deal Brexit and what it might mean for UK universities, but until the last few weeks I don’t think any of us at UUK seriously believed it might happen: there are just too many reasons to believe that all parties will try to avoid that most extreme scenario.
At the recent meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary University Group, which took place on the night the draft withdrawal agreement was first published, assembled members of both Houses agreed that a no-deal Brexit was unthinkable. Despite this it is not at all clear how it can be avoided if the withdrawal agreement fails to win Parliamentary backing.
As a consequence, universities across the UK are now seriously planning for the no-deal scenario.
So what might it mean? What would happen within universities on the 29th March if the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal?
Let’s start with the good news. The UK government has made some important commitments to ensure a degree of stability.
First, the Prime Minister has said that, even in the event of a no deal, the rights of EU citizens living in the UK ‘will be protected’. This is extremely important given that there are currently nearly 135,000 students and 50,000 members of staff from the EU working or studying in UK universities. We assume, therefore, that the scheme to allow EU nationals arriving before the date of Brexit to seek settled status would be implemented even if there were to be no deal. It is less clear whether it would cover those entering the UK up to December 2020, as per the withdrawal agreement.
Universities should also be reassured by the government’s guarantee to underwrite UK participation in EU programmes in the event we leave without a deal. So universities which have successfully applied for research grants under the Horizon 2020 programme can be reassured that the UK government will pay for their continued participation in those projects. The government has also committed to continue funding UK participation as a third country until the end of the current programme in 2020.
However, it is not yet clear how payments for existing grants will work in practice, and how the European Commission will deal with the change in the status of UK researchers in this eventuality, especially for those who are awaiting the outcome of evaluation. There is still a lot of detail to work through.
For students, we know that the UK and devolved governments’ offer to EU students starting in 2019 that they will continue to be treated in the same way as ‘home students’ in terms of fee and loan access will stand regardless of whether there is a deal. However it is not clear what will happen from 2020 onwards.
For those participating in the Erasmus programme, the government has also guaranteed to underwrite payments to support the UK’s participation in that programme where grants have already been applied for and are ‘successful’. However, we don’t know how this will work in practice, and there remain many unanswered questions about the status of students who are on exchange programmes on the day after a no deal Brexit.
In fact, the Erasmus programme is a good place to start in trying to explain just how messy this could get. Thousands of UK students will be overseas on placements on the 30th March 2019, and thousands more EU students will be in the UK. If we leave without a deal, the UK will no longer be a part of the programme which governs those exchanges. Contracts between universities exchanging students will be void. Although the UK may have guaranteed payments to UK participants, what about those EU participants who are in the UK? Will the Commission continue to fund them? Will they be recalled by their home universities? If so, what will happen to them? Will they need to be re-allocated to other European universities? Will other European universities send our students home? If not, what will their immigration status be in the many EU countries in which they are studying? Will credit built up during exchange periods continue to be recognised? And what impact will this uncertainty have on students who are already now planning to start a degree with a compulsory year abroad after the date of Brexit?
Our government may, in time, be able to answer some of these questions, but others can only be answered by other EU member states and the European Commission itself, and answers are currently thin on the ground.
There are parallel problems on the research side. Although the UK government guarantee to underwrite payments for collaborative projects is a welcome move, we don’t know how these payments will work in practice. We also don’t know how, or if, the government will replace those grants which UK universities couldn’t access as third country participants - including prestigious European Research Council grants.
Both in education and research, we will need assurances that personal data can be transferred between UK and EU partner institutions. Will the UK data protection regime be granted 'adequacy' status by the European Commision?
What about professional qualifications? We currently have an EU-wide directive which ensures that most professional qualifications acquired in one member state are recognised in all the others. When we leave the EU we will no longer be covered by that directive. The UK has said that it wants to reach agreement which will mean that we continue to mutually recognise professional qualifications. Will that agreement be EU wide or will the UK have to agree this with each of the 27 member states in turn? What would it mean if, on 30th March, the UK and EU no longer have such an agreement? What will that mean for lawyers, architects, doctors, vets and other professionals qualified here but working in the EU, or vice versa?
These are just the issues which are specific to our sector. Universities like most other public and private sector organisations will also have to think through the consequences of generic challenges such as the status of agreements with EU entities; intellectual property; procurement; supply chains; regulatory hurdles.
We are only beginning to scratch the surface of the challenges we will have to face and overcome. In the next few weeks we need to build a much better understanding of the potential solutions to these challenges.
It will involve a vast amount of work, and we have to do it whether or not we believe a no deal is really possible. This is one occasion when I can honestly say that I will be delighted if it turns out to be wasted effort.
Vivienne Stern is Director of Universities UK international (UUKi).