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U.K. Universities Face Uncertainty as Brexit Looms

Nicole Grobert is German, but she has spent almost all of her career in Britain, developing tiny nanomaterials and figuring out how to use them in everything from artificial bones to super-efficient batteries. Young scientists have an unusual degree of autonomy here, she has found, and European Union funds enabled her to build her own research group at the University of Oxford.

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, New York Times

Nicole Grobert is German, but she has spent almost all of her career in Britain, developing tiny nanomaterials and figuring out how to use them in everything from artificial bones to super-efficient batteries. Young scientists have an unusual degree of autonomy here, she has found, and European Union funds enabled her to build her own research group at the University of Oxford.

These days, though, Grobert says her future at Oxford looks cloudier than it used to. Since Britain voted to quit the union, she has been getting calls from universities on the Continent, and farther abroad, gauging her interest in a new job. For now, she is staying put, but if grants grow scarce or immigration rules create new hassles, she is ready to move.

“I came with a suitcase,” Grobert said. “I can grab that suitcase and go.”

For decades, the European Union has provided a collaborative, cross-border framework in which British universities have grown and thrived. European grants fund research like Grobert’s and nurture the international back-and-forth crucial to scholarly work in disciplines from archaeology to economics.

Free movement within the bloc has meant faculty from other European nations can live and work in Britain visa-free, and students from elsewhere in the union pay the same tuition as Britons.

Now, university administrators are watching anxiously as negotiations between London and Brussels lurch along, with little clarity about how drastically ties may change after the divorce, known as Brexit, which is expected next March. Last month, negotiators announced a 21-month transition period, which may postpone the biggest shifts, but like everything about Brexit, it remains subject to change.

“This is the single biggest challenge to our universities, in the same way it is the single biggest challenge to our nation, since the Second World War,” said Alastair Buchan, Oxford’s head of Brexit strategy.

“Being in Europe has absolutely transformed the serious U.K. universities,” he said. “The threat Brexit brings, in this existential way, is that we won’t be able to access the talent, the scholars” from neighboring countries.

Buchan worries, too, that with financial support coming from one government, rather than a large bloc with well-established grant-making structures, future funding decisions may be driven by political imperatives rather than academic excellence.

European grants provide about 12 percent of British universities’ research income, although for some institutions it is as high as 60 percent, according to an analysis commissioned by four major academic bodies. Nationally, 17 percent of academics are citizens of European nations other than Britain. Within the elite Russell Group of Britain’s top 24 research institutions, the proportion is close to a quarter.

At University College London, where 50 million pounds, or about $70 million, in annual European grants make up 12 percent of the research budget, a Brexit mitigation group has met dozens of times since Britain voted in June 2016 to leave the European Union, said Michael Arthur, the president and provost.

Anxiety among European faculty members has eased a bit since Prime Minister Theresa May’s government said in December that citizens from other EU countries already in Britain would be able to register to stay. But the caveat that no one provision is final until the entire Brexit deal is done means nothing is for sure.

University College London has sought to reassure its employees, but the uncertainty “hangs over people,” Arthur said. More than 90 percent of Europeans on staff have been contacted by overseas universities asking if they’d consider a move, he said.

Recruiting new researchers is proving even harder than holding on to existing ones. In one fellowship program for young researchers, about 30 of the 100 applications the university usually gets come from continental Europe. This year, there were none.

That’s before Brexit is finalized, “so imagine what it might be like after,” he said.

Downstairs from Arthur’s office, a group of European undergraduates in the corner of a noisy cafe said they’d felt less welcome in Britain since the referendum. EU students already enrolled here, and those arriving this autumn, will be able to finish their degrees without immigration constraints or tuition changes, andthe transition arrangements may extend that further,but the rules for those coming later are unclear.

Konrad Gradalski, who studies politics and East European affairs, said when he was finishing secondary school in Poland, Britain was a popular destination among his peers.

“People had dreams like UCL, Oxford, Cambridge,” Gradalski said, referring to Britain’s elite universities. “Most of my friends no longer want to come here. They’re scared of the racism,” because of reports of anti-immigrant feeling among Britons. And, “more pragmatically, it’s about finance,” with worries fees will double or more to the level non-EU citizens now pay, and Europeans will lose eligibility for loans.

There are plenty of other options. Institutions in Canada and Australia, as well as continental European universities offering studies in English, are competing with big British and American names in the lucrative international higher education market.

Now, “we realize there are other things than Cambridge and Oxford and Harvard,” said Alix Dumoulin, a Parisian studying philosophy, politics and economics at University College London. At universities in the United States, international students’ enrollment has dipped, which administrators attribute in part to President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and restrictive policies.

Brexit could have a similar effect, putting off not just Europeans, but applicants from places like India, China and Malaysia, for whom “the general sense that Britain has become a less welcoming and hospitable place for foreigners is quite palpable,” said James Wilsdon, a professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield.

So far, numbers are holding up. After the Brexit vote, undergraduate applications from EU students dropped for the first time since 2012, but they have since ticked up again. Applications from outside the union also rose, a reminder that the pool of potential students is growing as middle classes expand in many developing nations.

Saying it did not want to pre-empt negotiations, the Department of Education declined to comment on Brexit’s effects on universities, but said EU students make an important contribution “and we want that to continue.”

Sam Gyimah, the government’s minister for universities and science, has said Britain will continue welcoming international researchers, and hopes to remain part of the European Union’s main research program. “But we are not going to participate at any price,” he said in February at a parliamentary meeting on Brexit and science.

That underlines the reality that universities’ concerns are just one piece of a much larger, fiendishly complex Brexit puzzle. So their priorities, even those government shares, “could be derailed by the bigger politics,” said Sarah Main, executive director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, an advocacy group.

The stakes are high. With deep ties to research-driven industries like tech, aerospace and pharmaceuticals, universities are an important economic engine. Their prestige, said Main, is also central to Britain’s international reputation. “I think it’s part of the U.K.'s character.”

At University College London, Dumoulin said that while Brexit might make it harder to stay in London after graduation, she will have lots of other choices. As a French citizen, she will still be able to live and work anywhere in Europe, unlike her British classmates, who are likely to lose that right.

“I feel like I’m really lucky,” she said. “Because it’s not France who’s exiting the EU.”

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