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House of Commons Education Committee - The Impact of Exiting the European Union on Higher Education

Following on from the EU Referendum in June, the Education Committee have launched an inquiry into the impact of leaving the EU on Higher Education. Details of the inquiry can be found on the committee website.

The submission produced by the Geological Society can be found below:

Submitted 11 November 2016

1. This submission has been produced jointly by the Geological Society of London and University Geoscience UK.

I. The Geological Society (GSL) is the UK’s learned and professional body for geoscience, with about 12,000 Fellows (members) worldwide. The Fellowship encompasses those working in industry, academia, regulatory agencies and government with a broad range of perspectives on policy-relevant science, and the Society is a leading communicator of this science to government bodies, those in education, and other non-technical audiences.

II. University Geoscience UK is the subject association of Geoscience (geology, applied geology, Earth science, geophysics, geochemistry and some environmental science) departments/schools based within universities in the British Isles. It promotes discussion and exchange of information between departments and provides a point of contact between these and professional, government and quality control agencies.

III. This response is a compilation of views from some of those working in the geoscience higher education sector and therefore is not necessarily a fully representative view of our community.

2. We welcome the committee’s inquiry to examine the impacts of the referendum vote on Higher Education. The impacts of the decision to leave the European Union are already being felt in academic communities, both in research and teaching, the full extent of which has yet to be understood. Already there is growing evidence to suggest that the negative effects will be both profound and long lasting, and difficult to counteract until such times as the uncertainties about the future relationship between the EU and the UK are resolved.

3. There are also indications that the damage to the internationalisation agenda of UK universities extends well beyond the EU, as potential students from outside the EU (e.g. in Asia) have interpreted the referendum decision in such a way they now regard UK as being ‘unfriendly to overseas students’. While the recent announcements by the Government guaranteeing continuation of financial support for joint EU research and teaching are welcome, it is critical that the potential for potential damage to the UK academic sector in the long term is recognised and addressed as a matter of urgency.

4. In common with other subjects, some academic geoscientists have effectively been excluded from participating in major European research project applications as a direct result of the uncertainties about the future relationship with the European Union and the long-term eligibility of UK scientists and institutions as partners within European funding structures. The decision has also impacted on staff recruitment and retention, and in some cases successful applicants for staff positions have turned down offers citing the referendum outcome as contributing to this decision. Many colleagues from the EU remain very concerned about their long-term prospects in UK academia.

5. The impact on Higher Education teaching will take longer to materialise, but there are already indications that these impacts with be profound and difficult to counteract, and other countries interested in attracting overseas students may see this as a major opportunity.

6. Because we study the Earth, geoscience is among the most international of disciplines, and hence is particularly vulnerable to long-term damage as a result of any changes to travel restrictions or freedom of movement resulting from the decision to leave the EU. Changes to or uncertainty around travel could have a negative impact on the ability of academic staff from the EU taking up jobs in the UK which could in turn erode teaching and research excellence in UK universities and discourage students from studying here. Additionally, given that any restrictions are likely to be reciprocated, we risk being disproportionately faced by additional costs for travel within the EU for fieldwork, which is an intrinsic part of geoscience education (at minimum, the cost of time for additional paperwork when travelling within Europe).

7. Another issue is that given that much geoscience employment is in organisations that work internationally, our UK students’ employment prospects may be hampered by their nationality – an EU passport holder will be more readily mobile within Europe than a UK passport holder. These concerns are exacerbated by existing immigration restrictions between the UK and non-European countries.

8. In response to the questions raised in the Terms of Reference:

What protections should be in place for existing EU students and staff?

  • Reassurance to staff from the EU that they can still remain in post in the long-term.
  • Reassurance to students from the EU that they can remain in the UK until the end of their programme of study.
  • For future applicants, there will be concerns about the uncertainty of how EU students will access UK education with potential barriers such as visa requirements. A decrease in the number of applicants is likely even before the terms of Brexit are known – government action to promote the UK as a destination among potential students is urgently needed.

The future of the Erasmus+ programme following the withdrawal of the UK from the EU:

  • • Universities have been actively promoting internationalisation in their degree programmes, to the great benefit of both students and staff. Any restriction of choice would degrade the Higher Education experience for students, and steps should be taken to ensure that the UK continues to participate in these initiatives.

Risks and opportunities for UK students:

  • If there are reduced student numbers then the main risk is to budgets (particularly for those institutions who rely heavily financially on student numbers) - this may impact on the security of degree programmes, and hence the choice of degrees available to UK students.

How changes to freedom of movement rules may affect students and academics in English Higher Education institutions:

  • Changes to freedom of movement may affect students (and academics) in English Higher Education institutions, limiting their ability to gain international exposure (particularly important for the geosciences).
  • For geoscience there is a possible negative impact on the residential field trips we take to EU countries. There may also be an impact on students who undertake geological mapping and independent studies in the EU. Both of these would be detrimental to the student experience.
  • A reduction of international student numbers would potentially allow greater access to Higher Education for UK students, but at a cost of a degradation of the overall experience, more costly degrees, and poorer employability prospects.
  • It may have a major negative impact on the number of PhD students from the EU due to additional uncertainties about visa requirements during the writing up period.

How to ensure UK universities remain competitive after the withdrawal of the UK from the EU:

  • Clearly delivered and consistent messages on the impact of Brexit for applications to UK universities from EU citizens are required.
  • Reassurance that our doors are still open to non-UK citizens.
  • Institutions need to develop an easy-to-use system for applicants from the EU.

What the Government’s priorities should be during negotiations for the UK to exit the EU with regard to students and staff at Higher Education institutions:

  • Reassurances for all those currently in UK Higher Education.
  • Clarity of application processes and eligibility for future studies.

What steps the Government should take to mitigate any possible risks and take advantages of any opportunities:

  • Actively and urgently work with universities and academic bodies to promote UK Higher Education and prevent long-term damage.