Universities should accelerate EU funding requests and the recruitment of students and staff from the bloc before March 29 to mitigate the risks of a no-deal Brexit, according to advice from their umbrella body.
Institutions should also consider hedging against a drop in the value of sterling, and prepare for a fall in income and complications with banking payments and data protection rules if no alternative arrangements are finalised in the coming months.
The advice is contained in a circular from Universities UK to its 137 higher education institution members, even as it stepped up pleas to avoid a hard Brexit and called for greater clarity from the government on how it would support the sector after leaving the EU.
The detailed guidance highlights growing concern by senior academics over the financial impact on universities and the wider British economy from risks to EU student numbers, faculty recruitment and European research funding as Brexit approaches.
Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, said: “Were the UK to leave the EU without a deal, it would be immensely damaging for the UK and our universities. Without urgent action from the UK government, we could see talented EU staff quickly leaving the UK. And UK universities experiencing a sudden and steep decline in the number of enrolled EU students. The UK’s reputation as collaborator of choice in vital research could also be weakened.”
The UK’s planned departure adds to escalating pressures on higher education, with a review on funding set to report in the new year and the Office for National Statistics planning to issue recommendations on Monday on how student loans should be shown in government accounts. That could add up to £10bn a year to the reported deficit and spark demands for fresh budget cuts.
While the government has said it will support universities to ease disruption caused by Brexit, Universities UK says there was still a lack of clarity from officials over proposed assistance.
Universities UK has advised its members to be “mindful” of the risk of scrutiny by the Competition and Markets Authority over claims that could be undermined by Brexit — including domestic tuition fees, mutual recognition of qualifications or eligibility for EU placements through the Erasmus+ programme, which supports over half of foreign placements by UK-based students.
It estimates that there are nearly 50,000 EU nationals working in UK universities and 135,000 undergraduate and postgraduate EU students. Department for Education figures project the net export revenue generated by EU students is £2.7bn a year.
The UK also receives a disproportionately high share of EU research funding. The British Academy last week said a third of the latest round of European Research Council funding for humanities and social sciences went to the UK, on top of €626m between 2007-15.
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