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UK Faces Dire “Brexit Brain Drain”

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This time last year a group of influential British MPs issued a stark warning: the nation’s universities faced a “Brexit brain drain” of EU academics, should they not be given guarantees over their future immigration status.

The education select committee claimed that EU workers made up 16% of the UK’s university workforce, but over three-quarters of European academics were likely to consider leaving the UK because of the referendum.

A Nightmare for UK Universities

A year on, and the MPs’ mooted nightmare appears to be becoming a reality.

The number of European academics leaving British universities has surged by 19% over the past year compared with before the Brexit vote. More than 2,300 EU university staff members have also resigned in 2017, up by 10% from 2016.

At University of Oxford, 230 EU staff resigned in 2016, up from 171 in 2014/15, while at University of Cambridge 173 EU staff members quit, compared with 153 in 2015/16. At King’s College London 139 were lost, up from 108 before the referendum.

Some are flocking to other EU countries that are seen as more welcoming of international talent. At the ISEG School of Management in France, 10 of the 17 faculty job applications received so far this year are from people currently working in the UK. “It’s a significant increase on last year,” says Caroline Roussel, academic dean at IESEG. “Someone who would otherwise go to work in the UK may now look at Europe” because of Brexit, she adds.

Bleak British Research Prospects

The news for UK Ukhas gone from bad to worse, as a recent study revealed a 9% drop in non-British EU students starting postgraduate research courses in 2017-18 at the elite Russell Group universities compared with last year. This is a big concern because universities rely on international students, who pay higher fees and contribute a net £23bn to the UK economy each year, to fill and diversity their classrooms.

The postgraduate decline is particularly bad for Britain’s future research prospects, as many PhD students are seen as the next generation of research stars. In STEM areas such as computer science — critical to the UK’s innovation prospects and global competitiveness — 22% of all PhD students in the UK are from elsewhere in the EU. Official figures already show that the UK is already receiving millions less from a critical science research programme called Horizon 2020.

Universities say they are in some cases finding it more difficult to recruit talented international students in all disciplines to British shores, as they feel less welcome in the UK following the Brexit vote. One respondent to a recent survey at a British university with 890 EU undergraduates said they expected “the majority of those – 80- 90% – would no longer be coming”.

Half of Skilled EU Workers to Leave UK

The university talent crisis highlights the huge labor challenge Britain faces post-Brexit, as the brain drain is not limited to university students and staff. More than half of skilled EU workers in the UK have said they are going to leave Britain because of the plebiscite, with the healthcare, technology, media, telecoms and financial services sectors worst hit.

At the heart of the academics’ concern is access to visas, and funding for the research upon which they are weighted and measured. UK universities rely on international staff and want clarity on their status following Brexit, but so far the government has not set any concrete policy plan in place for academics, other than allowing EU citizens to apply for “settled status”, if they have lived in Britain for five years or more.

Meanwhile, researchers fear the EU could shut the off the tap of funding that Britain has come to rely upon as the UK government has cut back on its own research budgets. UK funding for management and business research, for example, has fallen by £9m to £45.3m over the past six years, while EU research funding has swelled by £4.8m to reach £18.2m in that time.

Anne Kiem, chief executive of the Chartered Association of Business Schools, says: “The increasing reliance of the business and management sector on research funding from the EU is very concerning in light of Brexit.

“Nearly half of business schools expect to lose research funding from EU sources in the next 12 months, and presently it is not clear how this funding gap will be filled once the UK leaves the EU.”

EU Workers Fear Discrimination

The Brexit brain drain will likely be exacerbated by workers in all sections of the economy fleeing Britain. A survey of EU nationals employed by FTSE 250 companies found that 56% said they were likely to leave the UK — even before the conclusion of Brexit talks.

Healthcare is likely to be the hardest hit, with 84% of employees in the sector reporting that they would leave. That poses serious problems for Britain’s ailing National Health Service, which is significantly under-funded and already facing a 96% drop in the number of EU nurses registering to work in the UK after the EU referendum.

The survey, by law firm Baker McKenzie, also found that 70% of EU staff felt more exposed to discrimination since the Brexit vote, with 38% of them saying they feel “vulnerable”; more than a quarter feared losing their jobs, due to discriminatory hiring practices.

What’s more, more than half said they had not been offered any support from their employers, although 42% had taken action to change their immigration status, with a further 40% saying their planned to do so.

Stephen Ratcliffe, employment partner at Baker McKenzie, said: “The current uncertainty around the immigration status of EU nationals underlines the need for all employers — especially those reliant on EU workers — to address their employees’ concerns around Brexit as a priority. Failure to do so could result in a significant skills drain for businesses in the near term, regardless of the Brexit deal reached.”

The MPs predicted the nightmare skills gap scenario facing Britain. It is also up to them to plug the gap.

Note: The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Alvexo on the matter.