The UK government’s White Paper released last month finally allowed educators and universities to breathe a sigh of relief: the UK-EU relationship of the future includes some relaxed visa rules for students under a revised Youth Mobility Scheme.
The benefits of studying abroad for UK students has been reciprocated by EU students as data has long shown that studying overseas increases chances of employment after graduation. In turn, this contributes generously to both UK-EU economies.
However, devoid of any recognition by the UK government is the wealth of migrants who work in the education sector and who fuel the UK’s first-class worldly reputation.
Tackling the industry-wide unease, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) released a report to urge the government to plan appropriately post-Brexit. The report highlighted 18 key industries that will be inevitably affected and even exacerbated further by a no-deal Brexit.
Under education, the CBI expressed its concern for academic staff, of which 17% in higher education and 4% of teachers in further education are EU nationals. Often, European and international staff are often required to fill specialised roles that are of unique expertise: there are only a handful of theoretical astrophysicists and ancient Greek scholars around the world, for example.
The UK also looks to Europe and beyond to fill vacancies where residential pools of talent are insufficient. According to last years’ British Academy “Brexit means…?” report, the UK is home to regions where more than a third of academic staff in certain departments are EU nationals.
At the top of the list, economics and modern languages are deemed most at risk after Brexit since 36% of economists and 35% of language academics are EU nationals. Behind them on its ‘risk list’ of subjects are mathematics (29%), physics (28%), classical and chemical engineering (26%) and politics and international relations (25%).
The mobility of academics through Free Movement has long aided the education sector as highly-skilled professors and researchers have collaborated in projects and passed the gauntlet of knowledge onto their students all over the world.
However, in the absence of a practical plan and Brexit looming little under six months away, acclaimed academics and researchers are likely to secure a job outside of the UK and elsewhere in the EU so that they can continue to move freely between the remaining EU member states.
Over 2,300 EU academics have resigned their posts in British universities in the past year, which is a 19 per cent increase in departures since before the EU referendum. The University of College Union also claim to have lost more than 23,000 posts between 2010 and 2017 as a result of severe funding cuts, accounting to a huge loss of a third of all teaching staff.
With more cuts to funding on the horizon, colleges and universities are becoming increasingly worried of a so-called “Brexodus” and “brain drain” of top talent for the industry.
These fears are legitimate: The University of Oxford has seen the most resignations of European professors and staff than any other institution, turning out up to 230 EU academics last year.
EEA migrants concerned about their future status in the UK have since been reassured that the government will grant them with ‘Settled Status’ post-Brexit. Yet fresh concern is now arising from recruiters who face a diminished talent pool of academics in the future.
Many recruiters have already reported difficulties in hiring higher and further educational staff since the EU referendum.
Despite the CBI report’s warnings, the UK government are sticking with the narrative that EU workers will not receive preferential treatment after Brexit. In immigration terms, this means that the current immigration system already in place for non-EU migrants will be utilised for European arrivals.
However, this model is unfit to accommodate for the demand the UK needs. Tier 2 Visas are capped annually by 20,700, meaning all incoming international migrants and EU migrants from a variety of professions and skill levels will be competing for a UK visa.
Between December and March 2018, thousands of eligible workers were refused a Tier 2 visa due to the cap: 3,500 of those rejected worked in science, technology, engineering, maths, medicine and STEM teaching.
However, not only will professors and researchers suffer under the Tier 2 Work Visa cap, but many other educational workers will be exempt from a visa entirely.
At the heart of the education sector is its wide range of supporting staff, including teaching assistants, language assistants and lab technicians. However, these workers would be ineligible for a Tier 2 Work Visa on the grounds of their salary and skill level.
Brexit is the greatest threat the education industry has ever seen. A lack of academic workers and supporting staff could lead to a staffing shortage and skills gap.
Colleges are already struggling under a tightened budget and deteriorating resources while universities face losing their vital EU research and funding lifeline as well as their staff.
The silver lining of Brexit for the education sector is that young people around the world will always want an education and the UK will always seek to remain a reputable provider for them.
Critics have pointed out that a recession opens the door of opportunity: people of all ages will be looking to expand their skill sets by taking up a course as this widens their chances of secure and stable employment.
A further plunge in the pound only drives international students to the UK since courses, accommodation and living expenses are comparatively cheaper than those on offer in the EU. Meeting the requirements and covering the financial cost of a Tier 4 Student Visa won’t seem so burdensome when UK life is outrageously cheap.
European students have so far not been discouraged from studying in the UK for this reason; universities have seen a 3% increase in EU applicants since this time last year, setting the bar of foreign student migration at an all-time high of 100,000 according to UCAS figures.
However, UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, claims the current situation and the declining rate of staff leaving is unsustainable for the future if it is not saved now. Hunt said: “If the government really wants to ensure that everyone can access the skills they need to get on in life, it must urgently invest in further education institutions and their staff”.
The CBI report as well as the latest Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) report recommends that the UK government completely overthrows the annual Tier 2 Visa cap – a prospect that, so far, the government has been hesitant to address.
Exacerbating matters, the UK government have shown little interest in reforming the Tier 2 Work Visa, and neither has the MAC. Reforming or at the very least relaxing Tier 2 rules is absolutely fundamental to the survival of most UK industries that rely on so-called “lower-skilled” work.
If the Tier 2 Work Visa remains the same, teachers, educational workers, researchers and assistants who earn below £30,000 a year will be unable to work, live and contribute in the UK.
Brexit negotiations have been underway for two years and still the people are kept in the dark. Both UK-EU citizens are none the wiser to the UK’s future migration plans.
As Brexit draws closer, institutions, staff and students need – and deserve – clarity. Without it, the last lifeline of hope many universities and colleges are holding onto will dwindle away and our top-quality service and reputation of education will go with it.
Olivia Bridge is a specialist content writer and political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service and leading Immigration Lawyers UK.