By Naina Bhardwaj, News Editor
The British government must maintain free movement for EU academics post-Brexit or risk losing thousands of teachers and lecturers across UK universities, a a leading German academics’ body has warned.
The warning comes as evidence mounts that European researchers and lecturers are leaving or rejecting UK higher education posts because of Brexit fears.
Up to 15% of university staff could be forced to leave UK higher education posts, according to the academic exchange service DAAD, leaving institutions understaffed and under-resourced.
Margret Wintermantel, the Head of DAAD, which represents more than 300 higher education institutions and student bodies across Germany, said uncertainty about future working and residence conditions was “proving painful” and prompting top academics to turn down British university jobs.
“The mobility of researchers should not be restricted, either for British academics in EU countries or EU citizens at British institutions,” Wintermantel said. “It is now up to the British government to create the necessary framework to ensure this can happen.”
Some 32,000 university academics in the UK are non-British EU citizens, accounting for 17% of the country’s teaching and research posts. In top-ranking universities, the figure tops 20%. They include some of the leading researchers in the country: more than half the European research council’s prestigious mid-career grants in the UK are held by EU researchers.
Over 120 EU academics said they harboured fears about the future of UK science or prospects for their own careers if they remained in Britain, while more than 90 said they or their colleagues were making concrete plans to leave the UK as a result of the Brexit vote.
The pro-remain campaign group Scientists for EU, which has been collecting evidence on the impact of the Brexit vote, said it has received more than 430 responses, including nearly 30 cases of EU nationals turning down UK jobs or withdrawing applications, and eight of EU academics who were working in Britain and have left.
The group also received 40 reports from British members of international research projects, who were being asked by their EU partners to scale down their role or withdraw from the consortium altogether, and nearly 50 reports citing xenophobia as a concern. Several people said they had personally experienced abuse, such as being told to go home.
Some have already applied to do so. Giorgio Bellettini, an Italian economics professor, said he had noticed a sudden post-referendum spike in applications for a vacancy in his department at the University of Bologna.
“Before 23 June, we had seven applicants from the UK in two-and-a-half months,” Bellettini said. “Then on 24 and 25 [June] alone, we had 12, including six Italians … I think researchers feel they have zero to gain from Brexit, whereas they might incur quite significant losses in the future.”
Mike Galsworthy, the programme director of Scientists for EU, said science and research was “a fluid system” and many EU nationals in the UK field were clearly considering their futures, driven by a mixture of broad cultural concerns, practical worries about their personal status and future funding fears.
“The anti-immigrant focus of the leave campaign and the surge in xenophobia nationally since the referendum have made many foreigners in the UK research community feel less welcome,” Galsworthy said.
“But people also worry about their rights as citizens and about the future funding landscape. We know nothing about what British science structure and policy will be, or its relationship with EU programmes.”
Some of the world’s most prestigious institutions have expressed concerns about the post-Brexit landscape. Paul Nurse, the Nobel prize-winning Head of the Francis Crick Institute, Europe’s biggest biomedical research centre, said 55% of its staff and €6m of its funding were from the EU, and many researchers were worried for their future.
Britain is the second-largest recipient of EU research funds after Germany, receiving €9.5bn (£8.2bn) in the past decade, compared with Germany’s €9.8bn. The Treasury has said it will underwrite existing EU-funded projects, including bids to the €80bn Horizon 2020 programme, for the life of the grant and beyond Brexit if necessary.
However many academics say this covers the bare legal minimum of what is needed and Britain urgently requires longer-term strategies for academic funding and immigration if its universities are to retain their world-leading role.
Wintermantel also raised the status of EU students at British universities, noting that there are 14,000 German students on Erasmus exchange schemes or doing full degrees in the UK.
Britain’s exclusion from Erasmus would be a “catastrophe”, she said, while the possibility that EU students could have to pay more than their British counterparts would lead to the “collapse of academic exchange with the UK”.
The claims follow mounting evidence that European researchers and lecturers are already leaving their UK jobs due to uncertainty about job security post-Brexit.
British academics are also considering moving away. Helen Fletcher, an associate professor of immunology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said Horizon 2020 funding for her consortium of about 30 Europe-wide partners was secure for the next two years.
But because she is British, her continental partners are “worried for the future … They are thinking of the next tranche of funding,” Fletcher said, adding that she would seek future funding through UK sources, rather than Horizon 2020.
“My home is here, in the UK,” she said. “But if it gets to the point that I can’t get research funding because the environment is detrimental to that, then I would move.”
Wintermantel said the situation was “proving painful” and that “the British government should end this uncertainty as soon as possible”.
“Both benefit hugely from international exposure promoting collaborative research in all fields.”
Seven national academies, including the British Academy and the Royal Society, recently wrote to the government demanding that it reassure EU researchers that “they and their dependents will be able to continue to live and work here”.
Universities UK, which represents 135 universities, has urged the government to guarantee that existing EU staff will be able to remain after Brexit and send a “clear international message” that Britain remains “an attractive destination for academic talent”. It wants future immigration reforms to reflect the importance to the UK of international students and academic employees.d.getElementsByTagName(‘head’).appendChild(s);