I write this blog as your AHUA representative on the UUK International 'no deal planning' sector working group, led by Vivienne Stern. Membership of the group includes representatives from universities, lawyers, and other sector bodies such as BUFDG, HESPA, UCEA, CUC, UK NARIC (on qualifications recognition) and HEPA (on procurement).
I am sure you have, like me, been diligently preparing no deal Brexit risk registers and making contingency plans as a matter of due care. My cheery refrains that we were 'preparing for the worst, while hoping for the best' and that 'being seen to be prepared is an important waste of time' are now being exposed for their early over-optimism. Nonetheless, this preparatory phase has been significantly enhanced by the expertise and co-ordination offered by UUK, including in their valuable tool-kit.
My tone turned into serious responsiveness to a looming critical incident when the Government stated if it did not secure the Withdrawal Agreement it would not make another statement in the House of Commons with an amendable motion until 26 February, with votes on 27 February. The current speculation is even this will be delayed, to a date shortly before 29 March, causing political accusations of 'running down the clock'. Article 50 makes no deal feel like the real deal now.
The impact on us as a leadership community in higher education has been the need to implement no deal contingencies. We are within the zone where actions have been triggered, and risk registers are superseded by the mitigations to the threats they envisaged. As CBI Director-General Carolyn Fairbairn said: "We really are in the emergency zone of Brexit now." The Government has issued two new Technical Notices, on higher education and Erasmus+, as part of their ramping up. These new Notices caused me more consternation than assurance. We were told no deal would "be a bit bumpy" by the head of the Civil Service, John Manzoni.
This affects people. Three examples serve to show how we in institutions cannot completely mitigate this bumpiness despite best efforts:
1. Students arriving from the EU after March
New rules due to be made under the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill will negatively affect non-UK EU students. The specific proposal is in the Home Office Policy Paper 'Immigration from 30 March 2019 if there is no deal', published 28 January 2019, and elaborated in Home Office Guidance 'European Temporary Leave to Remain in the UK', published the same day. This offers non-UK EU students non-extendable European Temporary Leave to Remain of 36 months. Which poses an immediate problem for offer holders arriving in the UK after March to undertake longer programmes or postgraduate study; including in medicine, dentistry and engineering courses, or with the option of studying for masters as part of an optional fourth year or where programmes contain a placement year.
The Government is highlighting the fact that these arrangements are temporary and will be replaced by the final immigration system from 2021. However, the impact of the current timeframe is an immediate disincentive to EU students planning to study in the UK, as they do not know whether they will be permitted to finish their programmes. Officials say the guidance may be reviewed within a week following a no deal exit. That is too late for research students currently making plans to come to the UK from the EU in April. To resolve this the Government needs to amend the timeframe being offered in the European Temporary Leave to Remain so that non-UK EU citizens coming to the UK for the purposes of study, at a registered provider, can remain for the length of their programme.
2. Students on Erasmus programmes
On Erasmus+, the European Commission has committed to all current learning mobility activities continuing, provided the UK Government contributes financially to the EU budget to fund the programme. However, at the time of writing the UK Government has not yet committed to providing further funding in the case of a no-deal Brexit. This means that EU students in the UK may not be able to complete their Erasmus+ term, as they may no longer be eligible for grants. Instead, the new UK Technical Notice only offers a UK underwrite for existing outbound UK students. It is silent on existing incoming EU students and on future programmes. But to ensure even that limited underwrite is effective, the UK Government acknowledges it will need to reach an agreement with the EU for UK organisations to continue participating in Erasmus+ projects. If discussions with the Commission are not successful, the Government will need to engage with Member States to ensure UK participants can continue with their planned activity.
Given this uncertainty, each University is pursuing its own bilateral arrangements with partner organisations to confirm the status of Erasmus+ participants and institutional partnerships to enable projects to continue. Some partner institutions could consider the agreements invalid and either charge fees or ask students to withdraw. While this would seem a straightforward thing for the UK Government and the EU Commission to fix, it's noticeable that UUK has felt it necessary to commence a national #SupportStudyAbroad campaign, asking for our support to lobby the UK government to commit to continue funding study abroad opportunities.
3. Recognition of Qualifications
Professional qualifications obtained in the United Kingdom and awarded before the withdrawal date will be recognised in the EU. But continued mutual recognition of professional qualifications covered by the current EU Directive is not guaranteed without a Withdrawal Agreement. This is limited in scope but has a high impact on those students affected. In the event of no deal there would be no mutual recognition of qualifications for registered professionals, and students studying subjects such as Medicine, Dentistry, Nursing or Architecture. These students may find that they are unable to practice in some EU countries, as recognition will revert to national policies. Action by the UK on mutual recognition of professional qualifications in the EU is needed with the EU Commission or with member states, or in a Trade Agreement, to resolve this problem.
Much is being done to prepare for and mitigate the impact of a no deal departure from the EU at the provider level in the best interests of students. Where the solutions lie beyond our control we can help the lobbying effort being led by UUK, urging the Government to take action to address the issues. It is already clear a no deal departure - if it happens - will be a critical incident. There is an opportunity cost to the short-termism of no deal preparations, when the focus might instead be on our broader future relationship with Europe.
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