Degrees of Death

As regular readers I know, I got a few O levels and didn’t make it to university – it was much tougher in those days. So I don’t have a degree, not even an honorary one like that Jackie Bird. But I do know lots of academics and have come to value not just their intellectual contribution but the economic of impact of learning. It is ably described here in this worrying analysis on the implications of Brexit under this mad government by Colin Talbot, Professor of Government at Manchester Uni. It doesn’t mention Scotland specifically but I’m told this is a UK-wide phenomenon applicable here too. It first appeared in the LSE Brexit Blog and I’ve purloined it from Social Europe website. My thanks to them. Read and weep.


“The UK’s university sector is one of our most valuable national assets,” Prof Brian Cox, the University of Manchester academic and TV presenter, told me last week. He argued that UK higher education “is a genuinely global industry generating billions of pounds in export earnings, one of the necessary foundations of our innovation-led economy and perhaps our strongest soft power asset; political and industrial leaders from all over the world were educated here in the UK.”

Which makes it all the more strange that the government should be – whether accidentally or deliberately – undermining them. Most of the Brexit commentary about UK universities has concentrated on issues of funding, research cooperation and students. Much less attention has been paid to what keeps universities running – academic staff – and what Brexit will mean for the 30,000-plus EU academics in the UK.

I arrived at a meeting a couple of weeks ago and noticed one of my academic colleagues was visibly distressed.

When I asked what was wrong, they said they’d just had a very alarming letter from the Home Office. Having lived and worked here for more than two decades (they’re a national of another EU country) they decided to play it safe after the Brexit vote and apply for leave to remain. Big mistake.

They received a threatening letter from the Home Office saying they had no right to be here and they should “now make arrangements to leave”. The letter was obviously wrong – they had every right to be here under existing UK law – but that didn’t lessen the emotional impact for my colleague, whose whole future was suddenly thrown into uncertainty.

I had read similar stories in the press, and wondered how many other academics might be affected, so I turned to Twitter to ask for any similar experiences. The tweet I posted asking for examples was retweeted – mostly by concerned academics – over 1,000 times. People started writing to me with cases and I began digging into the issue.

The first thing that struck me was the level of fear, anger and disgust – and in some cases resignation. I have disguised individual cases – that’s because few people are willing to speak openly, such is the degree of fear about what might happen after Brexit.

The Impact On Individuals

Some EU academics (along with others) who have been living and working legally in the UK for years decided, after June 23, that they should try to cement their position by applying for one or other of the various routes to permanent residency. The procedures are daunting and of Kafkaesque complexity – one form runs to 85 pages and requires forms of proof that make acquiring Catholic sainthood look simple. As a result many applications are failing – but it is the form of the rejection that is causing much concern. A typical letter from the Home Office says (in part):

As you appear to have no alternative basis of stay in the United Kingdom you should now make arrangements to leave. If you fail to make a voluntary departure a separate decision may be made at a later date to enforce your removal…

This appears to be a fairly typical ‘prepare to leave’ letter, variations on which have been sent to “failed” applicants – even though they are currently here perfectly legally.

Even more worryingly, the decision on whether to accept or reject these applications is based on the “Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 and Regulation 26 of the Immigration (European Economic Area) Regulations 2006”, to quote the letter again. The latter will be repealed in the Great Repeal Bill planned by the government, which could rescind any ‘right to remain’ granted under existing law and regulations.

Brian Cox sums up the situation very well when he told me:

We have spent decades – centuries arguably – building a welcoming and open atmosphere in our universities and, crucially, presenting that image to an increasingly competitive world. We’ve been spectacularly successful; many of the worlds finest researchers and teachers have made the UK their home, in good faith. A few careless words have already damaged our carefully cultivated international reputation, however. I know of few, if any, international academics, from within or outside the EU, who are more comfortable in our country now than they were pre-referendum. This is a recipe for disaster.

Another academic colleague said: “As an academic I’m embarrassed and ashamed of [the] UK governments’ stance on EU citizens.”

One academic told me: “the Home Office is hedging its bets because we non-UK [academics] are now effectively hostages …”. A neuroscientist from the EU at a top UK university reacted with defiance: “For what is worth, I refuse to apply for a piece of paper [leave to remain] that I don’t need and won’t be valid after Brexit – when current law says I don’t need it. It’s just a certificate. They can stick their 85-page form up their arses.”

The level of anxiety is obvious: “I’m about to submit my permanent residency application. Any pointers from the rejections you’ve seen so far? Scary times ahead…”. Another said: “as an Irish citizen I am assuming the Ireland Act will continue to provide my right to be here. But… “

A policy specialist from Oxford said “people have been turned down for administrative reasons alone. The Home Office looks for any reason to say ‘no’ at the moment.” Or as another, retired, academic puts it, this is just “inhuman bureaucracy” at work.

How representative is all this? A recent survey of academics conducted by YouGov for the University and College Union (UCU) found that an overwhelming majority (90%) said Brexit will have a negative impact on UK higher education. Three-quarters (76%) of non-UK EU academics said they were more likely to consider leaving UK higher education. A third (29%) said they already know of academics leaving the UK, and over two-fifths (44%) said they know of academics who have lost access to research funding as a direct result of Brexit.

The Impact On Universities

UK universities are heavily dependent on academics from the EU. To cater for our global audience we need to attract the brightest and best and Europe is, unsurprisingly, a major source for such talent. Over 31,000 UK university academics come from the EU – sixteen percent of the total (all figures calculated from the Higher Education Statistics Agency data for 2014/15).

But this national figure underestimates just how important EU academics are to our top-rated universities. The London School of Economics has 38% EU academic staff. Other prominent London colleges – Imperial, King’s, University College London – have between a quarter and nearly a third. Oxford has 24% and Cambridge 22%. My own university, Manchester has 18% and most of the Russell Group of ‘research universities’ are in the top ranks of EU academic staff employers.

EU academics are equally important in the core subject areas that are vital to our long-term economic health. So areas like physics (26%), chemical engineering (25%), biosciences (22%), chemistry (21%) and IT (20%) are all heavily reliant on European talent.

So What?

Our global status isn’t, of course, just dependent on EU academics – UK experts are our bedrock (70%) – but the other 30% that come from the EU and the rest of the world are an important part of our global status.

Losing this talent – whether through demoralisation or deliberate design – would have catastrophic effects. As Brian Cox puts it: “Ministers must consider our global reputation before uttering platitudinous sound-bites for domestic consumption, and think much more carefully about how to ensure that the UK remains the best place in the world to educate and to be educated. [UK Universities] are everything the government claims it wants our country to become; a model for a global future.”

“The current rhetoric is the absolute opposite of what is required. The UK appears, from outside, to be increasingly unwelcoming and backward looking”.” They should be even more careful about the policies they enact and the way they are implemented.

The Home Office’s at best clumsy and at worse malicious handling of residency claims is causing huge distress and damage to our reputation. I am already hearing cases of EU nationals leaving, or planning to leave, because of the uncertain and unwelcoming future they now face. One academic lawyer acquaintance has already moved. We don’t know how many EU academics we’ll lose now, or in the future as a result.”

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21 thoughts on “Degrees of Death

  1. Depressing. Brexit is already in motion. Thankfully Scotland has another option.

  2. To follow on here is something i wrote last summer Derek:

    Sadly it became almost immediately apparent after the EU referendum result was announced that the Leave side didn’t actually understand what the implications of victory would be for so many aspects of our society nor had they any real plans to deal with them.

    One of those aspects is the possible effects of Brexit on the NHS. Writing in his blog on 30th June Mark Porter, Chair of the British Medical Association’s UK Council said “”Whatever your view of the outcome of the EU referendum, there is no doubt of the profoundly destabilising force it has exerted upon the country…we have been dragged into a situation that may compromise our ability to practise in a number of highly significant ways, and which has raised fundamental questions about the funding and workforce of a service already in crisis”

    Two weeks after the result the NHS Confederation issued this statement: “The influence and impact of EU affairs on the NHS has significantly increased over time, with various aspects of domestic health policy now being intrinsically linked with EU policy. The Leave vote will therefore certainly have far reaching implications for the NHS despite at this stage it being impossible to predict the level of impact, as we do not know which type of new relationship the UK Government would seek, how long negotiations with the EU would last and which outcome there will ultimately be”

    But the warnings were already out there for those prepared to look.

    One of the biggest areas of concern is in relation to the NHS workforce. In Scotland almost 10% of doctors employed in the NHS are EU migrants and for nurses and other health and social care providers the figure is as many as 5%. These numbers may be smaller than for non-EU migrants but still account for over 500 senior doctors, over 3000 nurses and perhaps as many as 8000 workers in adult social care. In recent years the numbers of EU migrant health workers in the NHS has been rising rapidly to fill shortfalls in training numbers here and without this immigration overall numbers of nurses and doctors working in NHS Scotland would have fallen. Even before Brexit became a reality the NHS in Scotland has been struggling to recruit and retain health and social care staff.

    The Prime Minister Theresa May has so far refused to give any guarantee that any existing EU citizens working in the UK will be allowed to remain once the UK pulls out.

    In May 2016, in the run up to the EU referendum, the Nuffield Trust issued this warning: “If EU immigrants are simply treated in the same way as non-EU immigrants after exiting the EU…the tightening of the rules for non-EU immigrants in 2010…suggest that it has been politically feasible to introduce laws which meaningfully restrict NHS migrant staff, and that the effect of this has been substantial”

    Speaking to the British Medical Journal, Kieran Walshe, Professor of Health Policy and Management at Manchester Business School said “If Brexit threatens the freedom of movement, or makes the UK a less attractive place to live and work, it will have a profound effect on health services and research. The best and the brightest are likely to vote with their feet and leave the UK”

    And of course immigration is a two-way street. There are currently over one million UK citizens living in other parts of the EU. At present they are entitled to access the health services in the countries where they live on the same terms as the citizens of those countries. The use of health services by EU citizens living in the UK is less than that of people born here largely because these EU migrants are younger. In contrast many of the UK citizens living in other EU countries are pensioners. If they can no longer access the health services of the countries in which they now live on favourable terms they may choose to return to the UK placing additional pressures on already over-stretched health and social care services.

    The relative lack of borders within the EU also plays an important role in the larger public health picture. Institutions such as the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control coordinate surveillance systems for communicable diseases such as influenza or HIV and are intimately involved in helping tackle challenges such as antimicrobial resistance.

    Such “cross-border cooperation” is also vital to medical and scientific research. Sir Paul Nurse, the Nobel Prize winner and former President of the Royal Society, has warned that Brexit amounted to “the biggest threat” facing UK research in living memory which could “jeopardise” the world-class medical research for which Scotland is renowned. Scotland’s Auditor General Caroline Gardner has suggested that Brexit could cost medical research in Scotland millions of pounds in funding.

    Rustam Al-Shahi Salman, Professor of Clinical Neurology at Edinburgh University, has warned that “Brexit will immediately destabilise our ongoing EU funded multi-centre studies”

    At present almost one in four research scientists working in the UK is from another EU country. Brexit could make the UK a far less attractive place for these scientists to work. In addition, the loss of EU wide collaboration may see vital clinical research trials pulled out of the UK.

    As Simon Wessely, President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists put it: “There will be less money for the NHS and for science. I cannot hide my anger – there never was £350 million a week for the NHS. Will we be able to attract the best doctors and scientists in the future?”

    Another major area of concern for health and social care workers is what will happen to the European Working Time Directive (WTD). Whilst some EU rules and regulations may seem meddlesome, time-consuming and largely unnecessary there have been many which have enhanced the protection of both workers and the public. It’s not surprising that major trade unions came out for Remain.

    In the 1980s junior doctors were working an average of about 90 hours per week. A new contract for junior doctors introduced in 1991 brought this figure down to about 72 hours per week. Whilst such long working hours almost certainly improved the continuity of care this came at the expense of exhausted doctors and increased risks to patient safety.

    The WTD sought to ensure maximum working hours of 48 hours per week as well as regular breaks between shifts. If Brexit leads to an “opting out” of the WTD it will have massive implications for contracts and initiatives like Agenda for Change as well as risking a return to the dark days of exhausted young doctors with patients being harmed as a consequence.

    At a more profound level Brexit may affect the health and well-being of our society across the board. According to Professor Sir Michael Marmot of the UCL Institute of Health Equity “around 90% of economists predict that, in the case of Brexit, we would be a poorer country in the short and medium term. A poorer country will have less money to spend on social services, healthcare, education and research. This will damage health.”

    So we have to accept that if Brexit occurs and Scotland is pulled out of the EU and the warnings for the provision of health and social care come to pass this will have profound implications for the health and well-being of us all.

  3. I was in a customers house last week, she’s around 80, German, lost her Scottish husband 2 years ago. We talked about Brexit, she was shaking, I’m not sure whether it was rage or fear. “I was born and brought up in nazi Germany as a child, this feels exactly the same, I am not a bargaining chip, I can’t go back to Germany and start again at my age” It was just so sad

  4. Truly shocking. Having spent my entire working life in Universities – mainly in my native Scotland, I am utterly shocked – but not surprised by this post.

    But here’s a thing: In the University in which I worked until recently, I was a prominent member of the YES Scotland campaign. I have lost count of the number of EU colleagues who told me they had to vote NO because and Independent Scotland would be ‘outside the EU’ and they would lose their posts. (English colleagues – almost to a man and woman – were of course for NO)

    One Maltese woman – and her pretty abusive Maltese husband – informed me that I was ‘mad’ to think that Scotland was a county at all – let alone able to survive outside of the UK. MALTA?

    An colleague from the Irish Republic – married to an English academic at another Scottish University advised me – with no apparent sense of irony – that it was the ‘height of folly’ for Scotland to seek independence – a folly she evidently didn’t see in Pierce, Connolly or MacDonagh.

    It gives me no pleasure whatsoever to not the discomfiture they must now be experiencing as a result of this largely English Brexit vote.

    Buy hey – we’re getting an Official Visit from Trump. So that’s fine.

  5. Oh well Project Fear mk2 – If we, Scotland, stay in the UK and as we have no powers (Sewel) to resist, the UK government can decide on a uniformity of benefits throughout the UK.

    So university fees may be imposed; prescription charges imposed; end to free personal care; Army recruitment in schools; NHS privatisation; fracking; Trident replacement; HS2 to Birmingham; good honourable people forced to leave – simply appalling.

    And to repeat, we would be powerless to stop any of these measures.

    Always campaign with a positive message we’re told? Any suggestions, or do we embark on Project Fear mk2?

    You are judged by the company you keep, and I do not wish to be in company with Brexit Britain, Brexit UK, Brexit whatever they call themselves.

    • Exactly. If the asset stripping, cuts, broken promises since 2014, look bad, you ain’t seen nothing yet. I think most accept there will be Indyref2, just not sure when atm.
      It is necessary for our survival that we are independent, and if we don’t grasp that lifeboat, it’s scorched earth thereafter.
      The PMs behaviour is something to behold these past few days, but the more authoritarian, the more her braying/barking party love her, and kippers are kept happy.

      • The broken promises and complete haplessness of May’s directionless government have to be keyplanks of indyref2 to get these comfortable middle class w*****s to face reality.

  6. The madness unfolds.

    “the level of fear, anger and disgust – and in some cases resignation. ”
    It has come to this; May will ‘out-Trump Trump’ ultimately.
    My wife is Irish. We joke about it, but…
    I look forward to Professor John Curtice’s polls in late autumn, when the roof starts to cave in on Davidson Dugdale and Rennie.

  7. And the BBC, in full knowledge of exactly what’s taking place, are turning their fascist blind eye to it all. And the BBC in Scotland, in full knowledge that Scotland is the sane voice in a very sick UK, are cranking-up the poison, lies and hate and telling us we’re going nowhere, that we, too, in Scotland will be part and parcel of dragging victims to gas ovens if victims are to be dragged to gas ovens.

    If the BBC are content to so regularly and freely give a forum to Farage and other UKIP reps, and to use SNP MPs as ‘laughing-stock’ on their political programmes, then I’d say that’s complicity in the serious threats to freedom currently germinating in the UK. What do Scottish BBC unionists journos and presenters seriously think when, for example, Question Time audiences bay and scoff each time ‘Scotland’ is brought into the convo? Is Jackie Bird lapping that up? Is she somehow proud that Scotland is treated as shite on the heel of their shoe? Is Andrew Neil happy with the direction the country’s being taken in? Is he proud to tweet to the world that the SNP are ‘the villains’ while the UK is slowly becoming fascist? These ‘proud’ Scots are clearly prepared to defend what’s happening in this country, and their silence is akin to holding their grubby, tainted hands over the mouths of screaming Muslim bairns while their parents are bundled out of the country.

    These are turbulent times and the BBC arent reporting the criminality but taking part in it. I wonder where it all ends?

    • and when is Derek going to bite the bullet and write an article about the BBC bias and prejudice before the indy campaign begins?

    • have a read at Craig Murray’s ‘ BBC Daily Distortion’ on his website, cause that’s what we will be up against

  8. socratesmacsporran

    I hate to be pedantic Derek, but, if, as I gather you did, you were schooled in Scotland – then you do not have O Levels, you have O Grades, subtle difference.

  9. I’m getting to an age when I’m beginning to think “Hell mend ’em”. If that’s what people vote for in all their stupidity then they get what they deserve. It won’t affect me. I was angry and bitter over IndyRef1 and will be again if we fail IndyRef2, but Hell mend ’em, if they want another 20+ years of Tory (or Tory-lite) “fascism”.

  10. This is how it starts Derek.

    Unless folk make a different choice, and soon, they won’t want to see where it ends.

  11. Sorry to disappoint you, but if you sat your exams at Selkirk then you don’t even have any O levels. The Scottish Examination Board, as it was at the time, allowed candidates to be presented for Ordinary Grade examinations. O levels were an entirely English construct. Pedantic, I know, but important in the context of Scottish cultural history.

  12. ” I got a few O levels”. Congratulations. That was the time that one could get on well in the world with a few first level certificates.

    Mind you, “O Levels”; English educational system certificates or do you mean O Grades, Scottish Certificate of Education? A completely different examination system.

    Happens all too often, much like conflating Holland with The Netherlands or, dare I say, England with GB/UK.

  13. The academics at ST Andrews University voted against Scottish Independence in the sure and certain knowledge that they would remain in the EU, from which they gained so much funding, students and staff.

    Arguing with one I said that the Chief Scientific Adviser to the EU President had stated there was an 80Billion euro fund for research and Scotland would be well placed to benefit from it. The reply was, we would need to be in the EU, not Independent, so No to independence.

    That conversation took place, late afternoon, Sept 18, 2014.

  14. The universities were never very pro Scottish during the early devo campaigns in the 60’s and 80’s. Many Scottish university staff and academics came from furth of Scotland and in particular or universities, who shall be nameless, they are simply outposts of Englandshire.
    It good to see the implications of greater brittishness being felt by the academic staff now. They have my sympathy. They need to wake up!! You have been given a foretaste of “British” xenophobia. It can only get worse.

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