Barry Turner: Higher Education post Brexit

Will a restrictive immigration policy damage our position as one of the world’s most prestigious providers of higher education?

According to a recently leaked Home Office document the immigration policy post ‘Brexit’ will impact significantly on European Union students wishing to study in the UK. EU Students studying for degrees and PhD qualifications and all other taking more than two years to complete will most likely require Tier 4 visas, as do students currently applying to study from non-EU countries. The full impact will be of course much wider.

The Home Office document stipulates that as part of a three stage implementation of policy, EU citizens granted the right to come to Britain to work or study will receive a permit for only a two-year stay. Students wishing to study for a three year duration degree would therefore need to apply for the student Tier 4 visa as currently required by all non-EU students.

This is bound to impact significantly on student recruitment with Tier 4 visa requirements, which are considerably more restrictive than current free movement arrangements, acting as a deterrent to a students from another 27 countries. It is not yet known what the EU response to the proposed immigration policy will be but it is likely that British students wishing to study in Europe for higher education qualifications will be subject to similar rules if the UK implements the leaked policy.

The government has commissioned a report by the Migration Advisory Council on the impact of the changes proposed but it will not be complete until six months after the UK has left the EU, making its findings of little use to universities and colleges planning for the UK’s departure.

It is to be hoped that the higher education sector will exert some influence over prioritizing clarity for prospective students well in advance of Britain leaving the EU in 2019. A possibility is of course that the current highly restrictive Tier 4 visa is modified or even abolished for all foreign students to make application to a British university simpler and less proscriptive.

This is not the only impact that Britain’s departure from the EU will have on higher education. The business advisory firm Deloitte have conducted a survey indicating that as many as 1.2 million highly skilled workers could leave the UK post Britain’s departure, this would of course include significant numbers of academics who according to the report would be very difficult to replace.

The loss of engineers and scientists in particular could lead to difficulties in delivering teaching and research supervision in a number of areas considered crucial to the UK economy.

On a final note the effect of a reduction in EU students and academics goes beyond the internal economics and operations of the universities and colleges themselves. The loss of foreign students means a reduction in income for local businesses and a reduction in talented student workers available during their studies to spend and work in the local economy.

In the UK, universities and colleges provide a major impetus to the local economy in terms of supply chain, increased consumers spending and as mentioned above available talented workers for local commerce and industry. Any reduction in students will necessarily impact on these areas.

The government needs to ensure that whatever ‘Brexit’, its currently warring factions settle on that a sensible policy applies to ensure that education, one of Britain’s major exports is not irreparably damaged by a clumsy or draconian immigration policy.

Many economists have predicted that a post EU Britain could become the sick man of Europe. We must ensure that damage to our excellent education facilities does not make us the thick man of Europe too.