By Matt Waddup
To anyone familiar with the UK further and higher education sectors it will come as little surprise that, according to Yougov, nine out of ten (90%) University and College Union (UCU) members voted to remain in the European Union in the 2016 referendum.
Europe is of crucial importance to the life and work of the outward looking, global sector that our members work in.
Barely a day goes by without some new speculation about the progress of the negotiations with the EU on the terms of the UK’s withdrawal.
But while a deal could be just weeks away, there is still precious little detail about what how the UK education sector might be affected, even though our universities are global institutions and many of our colleges rely on staff from the EU.
The final deal will determine tuition fee levels and loan eligibility for EU students, and whether the UK will continue to have access to the Erasmus+ study exchange programme.
It will set out the UK’s future relationship with EU research and structural programmes, which currently underpin much our country’s science and innovation.
Importantly, too, the deal will determine the rights of over 50,000 EU staff currently working in our colleges and universities, and the freedom that academics and students will have to move between the UK and EU for work and study in the future.
In short, these negotiations will determine whether Britain’s education system is open to the rest of the world or if the door will be slammed shut. Yet the government gives the impression that our sector is an afterthought.
We believe that the three key objectives set out by the TUC for a ‘jobs-first’ Brexit provide the building blocks for a successful deal. These call for a future relationship which maintains workers’ existing rights both now and in the future; tariff-free, barrier-free trade with the EU; and that trade and livelihoods in Gibraltar and Ireland are protected.
For universities and colleges, it is also imperative that the final agreement doesn’t create any barriers which would make it less attractive for EU staff and students to work and study in the UK. Higher education in particular is a global enterprise, and the success of many of the UK’s top institutions relies on the easy exchange of knowledge and expertise across borders.
Isolation from our European partners will have big implications – not just in terms of our ability to attract staff to work here or recruit students from around the globe – but in terms of the degree to which we are an open, diverse and welcoming society. As things stand, the UK government risks throwing away our competitive advantages.
The government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy has already sent a damaging message to many international staff and students that they are not welcome in this country. Some of the appalling rhetoric from the government about Brexit has compounded those fears for EU staff and students.
With the stakes so incredibly high, it is unsurprising that UCU members recently voted overwhelmingly in favour of a fresh referendum on whatever deal the UK government manages to secure.
We’re not alone in this view; several other trade unions – including Unison and GMB – have come out in favour of another referendum. Last month, an estimated 700,000 people took to the streets demanding a say on the any final Brexit deal. And in recent days, a raft of leading business leaders and lawyers have thrown their weight behind calls for another vote.
Much like the Brexit deal itself, it is still unclear what a second referendum might look like but the principle is sound.
The final deal will have huge ramifications for the UK. So it’s only right that the people get a proper say on whether they think the final deal negotiated by the government will deliver the country they want to see.
We in UCU stand for an open and welcoming country at the centre of global knowledge economy. If we lose that, the social and economic cost will be substantial. Our universities and colleges are worth around £80bn to the UK and they enhance our soft power around the world.
In the coming weeks we will take every opportunity to remind the government that they must ensure the interests of all those working and studying in further and higher education are protected as we depart from the EU, and that we must all have a democratic say on whatever deal they negotiate.
Matt Waddup is the Head of Policy and Campaigns for the University and College Union