Some EU citizens living in Britain who decided to seek permanent residency after the Brexit vote are being told to make arrangements to leave. A number of these people are among the 31,000 EU academics currently working in UK universities. Colin Talbot says many are alarmed and some have already decided to leave – putting the expertise of Britain’s universities in serious jeopardy.
“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.
On your bike? Outside Oxford University. Image credit: Bicycle by Kurtis Garbutt. This work is licensed under a CC BY 2.0 license.
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 23 June, 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 government’s 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.
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.
This article is reposted from the LSE Brexit blog and is published under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 UK license. It is an edited version of the post that first appeared on the author’s personal blog.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.
About the author
Colin Talbot is Professor of Government at the University of Manchester.
The precedent for this can be found in the 1930’s when the civilised world closed down. There can be no hope when chasing people on the basis of nationality is the norm
Great write up of the issues we are facing. More worryingly though is the attitude of the home office. Despite 29% of the applications refused or rejected they are failing to compile the easiest of statistics on why. I have raised a Freedom of Information request to obtain a breakdown of the 29% rejections and it was refused on the grounds that no statistic existed. This amounts to gross negligence in two parts:
How can the department improve its processes to relieve the amount of re-applications if they don’t know why so many fail?
How can they improve the process, guidance notes and resulting distress for the applicants if they don’t know what part of the process is failing?
For reference here is the link to my FoI request and correspondence with the home office.
Very sad. Colleagues are affected. And there may be some tit-for-tat on the continent too, sending home British – how large might that be?
It makes me ashamed to be British. Disgusted and angry.
what an alarmists post, just for one wrong email? Come one, just ridiculous
29% of applications have been rejected… Thats not one email. Countless mistakes have been made by a system which is not fit for purpose.
This article is indeed extremely distressing!! Do those voters who lent their vote to the Conservative government realise why this election has created a poison chalice? I can not express my disdain for this disastrous outcome which has been so eloquently expressed. We are on a precipitous landslide of loosing a bedrock of academic talent. I ask those of us working in universities and research facilities to write to their member of parliament
Dr Trevor Colluney
Would the same policy for European footballers in UK sporting bodies apply or would there be a revolution?
Too upset to comment beyond the fact that every East European, French, Dutch Italian and Greek I know, they all work, all pay taxes. I am so ashamed to be British
I am currently assisting in the settlement of Syrian refugees in UK. Perhaps we need similar plans for returning Anglos when they are turfed out of EU countries, most have settled in the EU because the cost of property is way below the ridiculous prices asked here. Returnees will have very few rights if they have been away for 15 years or more.
The blog post is nearly three years old, and pre-dates both the Withdrawal Agreement and the Settled Status scheme. Anyone reading it who is alarmed needs to know what to do. Apply for Settled Status – it is mostly an online procedure, not without its glitches, but most manage it smoothly. Anyone not immediately eligible for settled status (for which you need to document 5 years’ residence in the UK) will get pre-settled status. If problems arise, there is an excellent campaigning and support group, “The 3 Million” (https://www.facebook.com/groups/Forum4EUcitizens/) with lots of people who have been through it and can help. The Irish citizen mentioned in the article need not worry; the long-standing arrangements under the Common Travel Area agreements will continue, with full rights for Irish and UK citizens in each others’ countries. Irish citizens don’t need to apply for Settled Status (but there can be advantages in doing so, eg if your spouse/partner is a non-EU citizen).
That’s the danger of blinkered idealist governments… Witch hunts to distract from other problems. It’s a shame the academic community has failed do dismally to present it’s case in the political arena.
An 85 page document is not out of the ordinary. Our daughter is a resident in the USA. After the required number of years, she had to complete thick piles of paperwork and prove a genuine relationship over several years to her husband prior to marriage.
My brother’s Lao wife was not even allowed into the country for a visit. That was years before Brexit. Spouses from overseas must be separated from their UK spouses for a 6 month period before they can come here and will certainly have many other hoops to jump through.
We’ve lived in 5 countries. China, Thailand, Canada and the US and done 25 years of visas. It is certainly not a perfect or easy process and can be disappointing and negatively surprising at times, not just here in the UK.
Onward and upward to what will be Lesser Britain… GB will be entirely inappropriate. Not to mention the possibility of Ununited Kingdom —- at least they will be able to keep the initials… Brexit seems to be series of own goals with no end in sight.
Although I am not an academic myself, I am shocked to read this article and to realise how the UK’s world-class universities are being damaged by this short-sighted approach. I have just written to my MP about it.
I agree with Dr Gordon Ried. My husband (German national) who is over 65years also needed permission to stay in the UK and we looked at all the many forms and got very confused – however I found this UK.GOV website which is brilliant (see below).. Our first ambition was to obtain pre-settlement status and secondly settlement status, which allows him to travel between Germany and UK freely and stay in the UK permanently. The application is done digitally and can be completed on a UK smartphone, however he only had a German smartphone and it didn’t work. We then looked at this website and asked for help to complete the application digitally and were able to a local office who provides this service and they were able to help to check that we had the correct information and then helped us complete the digital application and it worked. He would like to have dual citizenship but currently he does not meet the requirements and of course it is expensive, so he is happy with Settlement status. I would tell everyone who thinks they meet the entry requirements to check out this website.
I am an Australian citizen, and I have studied in UK ,as well as USA… the value of global cultural exchange , cannot be underestimated , for the student or for the university professor.
Wake up UK Home Office ! Consider the bigger picture and the immense global advantages of ” cross fertilisation of thought ” . Understanding people from other countries , prevents war ….
I am so ashamed to be British, my French neighbour – 35 years resident, worked here all her life, run successful businesses, been a good employer, paid all her taxes, came here lawfully and was welcomed. Now she is just a foreigner to be treated with total disrespect, the fact that her children are British citizens and that she has just as much right to be here as anyone else counts for nothing.
I benefited greatly from some of the best education in the world at a leading UK university which had lecturers from all round the globe and extended networks which encouraged not only academic rigour throughout the world but helped cement excellent trade and relationships with many Countries not just those in the EU. This Government is continuing the hostile environment with a passion. We must conclude that they are deliberately employing people of low skills and ability to will carry out their dogmatic witch hunt of anyone with an ounce of logic.
The parallels with Nazi Germany in the 1930’s are terrifying and there for anyone to see. I have no idea how we stop this appalling behaviour, with such a large majority, this Government will simply do as it pleases, history repeating itself.
I am an immigration adviser and I would like to encourage everyone to read the comment by Dr Gordon Reid. The original article was written before the EU Settlement Scheme was created to allow Europeans and their family members to apply to stay in the UK after Brexit, and everything Dr Reid said was correct.
I entirely agree that Brexit is a terrible idea and that it will have a negative effect on academia. But this article, however correct it may have been when written, is now almost entirely wrong.