A hard Brexit could be the “biggest disaster” for British universities, costing decades of progress and leaving the UK’s international status diminished, vice-chancellors and senior academics have told MPs.
An education select committee hearing on the impact of the vote to leave the EU on British universities was told that German and Irish institutions were “snapping at the heels” in poaching UK-based staff, while Oxford University’s head of Brexit strategy said the benefits of centuries of cooperation were being put at risk.
Asked about the likely impact of a hard Brexit, Prof Alistair Fitt, the vice-chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, said: “It would probably be the biggest disaster for the university sector for many years.”
Prof Alastair Buchan, Oxford University’s incoming head of Brexit strategy, said: “We’re giving up 500 to 950 years of exchange – I think we need to be very cautious [about what type of Brexit is pursued].”
Buchan, the dean of Oxford’s medical school, takes up his Brexit role on 20 January. His seniority and the status of the post is a clear sign of the gravity with which Oxford and other universities are treating the potential impact of Brexit.
Buchan drew parallels between British universities and Premier League football clubs. “Our problem is the Manchester United problem, isn’t it?” he told the committee.
“Every student and every staff member that comes to Oxford is a benefit for this country, because we recruit quality, people that play in the top league.
“We need to be leading, and we have been leading as universities in the past 10, 20 years. Thirty or 40 years ago we weren’t, when we joined the EU. To lose that would be absolutely shooting ourselves in the foot – we must not do that.”
Buchan complained that the Brexit department and the Department for Education had no way of communicating with universities about the problems they faced. Instead, academics were spending their time helping ministers and civil servants.
“In the Department for Exiting the European Union, there is no structure of who we can talk to, there’s no base camp, there’s no one responsible for research or education in universities,” he said.
“Likewise, in the Department for Education, there’s nobody really responsible for leaving the EU. So there’s a real need to see who is the channel or the portal for information.
“They are very hungry for information, I’ve spent a lot of time explaining to them how it works.”
Asked if the government had sought universities’ views, Fitt said: “I would say, largely, no.” However, he added that the universities minister, Jo Johnson, had been “welcoming”.
Catharine Barnard, a professor of EU law at Cambridge University, said the threat of Brexit had “turned upside down” the lives of EU staff and students in the UK.
She cited a survey by the university of potential students who did not take up a place, with a number of respondents mentioning “anti-immigrant sentiment” as one reason. Overall undergraduate applications to Cambridge from the EU are down by 14% so far.
Other European universities were looking to take advantage of Britain’s difficulties, she told the committee hearing (pdf), held at Pembroke College, Oxford.
“Germany is working very hard to see if they can attract British academics or academics from British universities to Germany, offering positions that have no teaching connected, research-based posts, and in Germany, much of the academic work is now done in English, so Germany is snapping at our heels,” Barnard said.
“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.
“Universities in other member states see Brexit as an opportunity to undercut. It’s a tall poppy – we are the tall poppy, we get more ERC [European Research Council] funding than any other member state, we are seen as the best. Germany is number two, significantly behind in terms of funding, and they want some of that action.”
Barnard said the status of an elite institution such as Trinity College, Cambridge, was “largely due to Trinity’s brilliance in maths, which has much to do with the input of our Hungarian, Polish and Romanian students”.
Buchan warned that Britain’s higher education sector could follow the US in becoming more insular and liable to being overtaken by China.
“What we see in America, heading into Trump’s administration, over the past five or 10 years, has been in a reduction in funding, their collaborative publications have fallen off, their impact is beginning to drop.
“Our worry is that China and India are in the ascendancy. We have been second only to the US – we need to be very sure that we negotiate the kind of openness that academia is all about,” he said.