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Brexit: The university challenge

24 October 2017

The EU referendum result sent shocks throughout the higher education sector and across the continent. But what does this mean for universities, and how can Bristol tackle the challenges and seize the opportunities? Four Bristol experts examine the uncertainty.

How has Brexit changed European perceptions of the UK?

We don’t realise how much we were appreciated in EU circles: for our civil service, our diplomatic experience and our ability to roll up our sleeves and get on with it! Elsewhere in Europe, it’s very much about consensus politics with endless discussion and deliberation. The UK was always good at concentrating minds and galvanising brains to find solutions such as making the single market more competitive.

When the UK voted to leave there was dismay across the continent. EU politicians tell me in the 12 months since the referendum they’ve gone through the stages of mourning in rapid succession: distress, anger, resentment, denial and now acceptance. In the education sector – what happens to Erasmus? What happens to that wonderful ability to study in any university you want across the EU? Considering that most young people in the UK wanted to remain in the EU this is certainly worrying. While we in the UK seem to be in disarray, the rest of Europe is pretty sure Brexit is going to happen. However, I have yet to come across a European leader who doesn’t wish with all their heart this wasn’t the case. So I believe negotiators will find a way to somehow keep the Erasmus scheme in place.

It’s easy to list the complications, but the fact is we did vote to leave. I truly believe the UK will be OK. There’s a lot of talent here. As a nation, we’re good at thinking outside the box. That will help us thrive in the long term. In the short term, it will be very complex.

How are academics from the University of Bristol helping to negotiate Brexit?

One of the many unintended consequences of the referendum is that academics who have spent years teaching and researching EU law are suddenly very much in demand (and yes, I know it won’t last). Almost all areas of our work are impacted. Brexit affects student mobility, recruitment and the curriculum we teach. It affects the research we undertake and the sources on which we rely to fund that research.

We are finding that our work has new audiences. It is of interest not only to our colleagues in academia, but to national and local politicians, trade unionists, citizens’ advice bureaux, community groups, pressure groups, employers, recruiters, business organisations and the citizenry at large. We are using blogs and a variety of media channels to disseminate our research, as well as workshops to bring these diverse communities together.

In the next few months, I will be contributing to the work of the House of Commons Library and the relevant Select Committees, scrutinising the government’s proposed Brexit Bills and the progress of the Article 50 negotiations.

All too often, the role of academics has been restricted to ad hoc appearances before Select Committees, but there are signs that this might be changing. There seems to be an appetite within Parliament for new ways of engaging with academia.

The challenge is to ensure that academics are able to demonstrate their worth in this fastmoving, politically charged and, for many of us, unfamiliar context. We have to be confident about the skills and knowledge we possess, and learn to work with policy-makers in creative ways to deliver considered and robust policy outcomes. If we fail to adapt and engage we will be left only to criticise the resulting policy, instead of helping to form it.

Many of our staff and academics are from outside of the UK; how will this impact them?

The challenges that Brexit poses to our international staff, European as well as non-European, go far beyond the technicalities of visas and work permits. Over decades, the UK has built a reputation as a welcoming and supportive environment for the world’s leading researchers, and we as a nation (not least its economy) have benefited tremendously from their presence here.

Universities such as Bristol have had an international outlook since their inception. Our academics are driven to collaborate with their peers around the world, including Europe, in their pursuit of excellence. There is no question that the European Union has been extremely effective in facilitating such collaboration through its various research framework programmes, and the free movement of people across European borders has made it more attractive still.

Even if a relatively straightforward work permit system for European academics is introduced, it sends a lukewarm signal to them. Essentially, we are making them beg to stay, when we should be thanking them for being here. There is no lack of opportunity elsewhere for talented and mobile academics, and there are plenty of ambitious and well-funded universities in North America, Australia, Asia and indeed Europe who will make tempting offers to our academic superstars if we don’t look after them and make them feel welcome and appreciated here.

In terms of soft diplomacy and indirect influence, it is clear that the UK’s privileged position as one of the world’s leading centres of academic excellence is a strength on the global stage, not least in our interactions with Europe, and the government needs to realise this.

The interplay between the city and the University makes Bristol one of the world’s great civic universities. But how will Brexit affect Bristol?

Bristol voted to remain in the EU. Its business sector is diverse, and has been a huge asset. It includes world-leading expertise in low carbon technology; aerospace and advanced engineering; innovation, creative and digital media; and financial and professional services.

Bristol is home to the fastest-growing cluster of high-tech small and medium enterprises outside of London, and to SETsquared, crowned best university incubator in Europe three years running.

But Brexit has brought uncertainty, and businesses do not welcome uncertainty. There is a lack of detail and a perceived sidelining of business from any government and cross-party decision-making on Brexit. For example, 50 per cent of employees in the visual effects sector in Bristol are from the EU, and we no longer know whether, and under what conditions, EU citizens may be employed to work here. 66 per cent of Bristol’s exports go to the EU, making it the third most dependent city in the UK on EU exports. But there’s also a concern that a city with a long-standing international outlook may no longer be perceived as ‘open for business’ and be less able to attract and retain talent.

But faced with the challenges that the Brexit vote has unearthed, the city is living up to its motto of ‘virtute et industria’: the City Council set up a Bristol Brexit response group within days of the referendum to allow the city to respond to the Brexit vote, to be an active partner in the shaping of the negotiation process and to act locally to respond to the changes ahead.

The University of Bristol has been at the forefront of research and public engagement via the #BristolBrexit initiative which culminated with a public event that brought together academics and members of the public to discuss the city’s response. Industry leaders will ensure that Bristol is regarded as ‘open for business’ to attract and retain talent. Bristol, like the UK, is a divided city. As a microcosm of the nation, how Bristol performs in a post-Brexit world will reflect the country’s capacity to respond to the changes brought about by Brexit.

Further information

Our academics are approaching Brexit from all angles – read more of their perspectives and achievements at  

You can listen and download the audio version here (mp3).