Tuesday 29 August 2017 07.15 BST
As Europeans living in the UK worry about their future rights following Brexit, European universities are using the opportunity to headhunt the brightest and best academics, warn UK vice-chancellors. The head of University College London, Michael Arthur, now says an alarming 95% of UCL’s senior researchers from other EU countries have been approached by institutions across the channel.
Currently nearly a third of UCL’s academics are from other EU countries.
And this is far from an isolated case. Vice-chancellors across the UK say the government has not done enough to reassure the nearly 34,000 academics from EU countries that their rights to continue living and working in the UK will be protected. And anxious, angry European academics admit they are exploring their own exit strategies.
In April, the Commons education committee warned that if the government didn’t guarantee EU citizens’ rights by the end of the year there would be an exodus of talented European university staff to competitor countries. More than 1,300 EU academics have left British universities in the past year, prompting fears that the Brexit brain drain has already begun.
Arthur says: “People are restless. About 95% of senior EU researchers here have had calls from European universities. Not many are actually going but it’s early days.”
He adds: “Losing people is the bit that is going to be slow and pernicious. In a decade’s time when UK universities slip from being second in the world to a much lower number we’re going to kick ourselves and say: ‘How did that happen?’”
Giandomenico Iannetti, professor of neuroscience at UCL, originally from Rome, says: “In the current atmosphere of uncertainty, researchers with a decent amount of European research funding working in the UK are being approached. It has happened to me and I know other colleagues in the same position.”
Iannetti has a part-time residency at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Paris, and like many scientists he is used to collaborating across Europe. He was shocked by the Brexit vote and is now anxiously awaiting more details on what Brexit will mean for him and his team.
He recalls arriving at Oxford University a decade ago as a young postdoc and loving the feeling of everyone working together. “I felt immediately part of an academic community,” he says. “This was strikingly different from the sense of fixed hierarchy that is unfortunately often the case in Italy. The Brexit vote was so much in contrast with my perception of the UK being culturally a core part of my idea of Europe.”
Paula Alexandre, a Portuguese scientist who leads a brain research group in UCL’s Institute of Child Health, agrees: “The academic environment is very open and diverse and that’s probably why I didn’t see the referendum result coming. I was quite emotional and confused in the days afterwards.” She says she found it particularly hard to explain the result to her daughters, aged 12 and six. They use English as a first language and consider the UK their home, but only have Portuguese passports.
“I have received invitations to apply for positions abroad, but I’m hopeful that common sense will prevail in the negotiations,” she says, “though I didn’t see the referendum result coming, so maybe it’s just wishful thinking and we’re really heading for a hard Brexit.”
Alexandre says she knows other European scientists who have changed their minds about coming to the UK because of Brexit. She is applying for permanent residency and then British citizenship, and hopes to stay. UCL has been supportive to European members of staff, she says, “but we still feel anxious about our future in the UK”.
Privately, many leading European researchers admit they are hedging their bets and exploring their options abroad. A European professor at a Russell Group university, who asked not to be named, says: “Since day one after the referendum I’ve been talking to universities in other countries. It’s not that I want to leave. It would be a big challenge to lose my friends and move again. But I need a safety net.” He adds: “There is a very international job market out there and I don’t worry about being able to find another job.”
Francesca Orsini, an Italian professor of Hindi and South Asian literature at Soas in London, was headhunted before Brexit under an Italian “repatriation of brains” scheme, but decided not to go. Since the referendum she has been approached by a leading US university. “Although my family is in the UK and Italy and I’m unwilling to move so far, I’m waiting to see whether the push factor becomes too strong,” she says.
Orsini is pessimistic about Britain’s future outside the union. She is also fearful about the country putting up further barriers to foreign students, as well as universities losing the right to apply for European research funds – “a pot from which we have always drawn much more than what we’ve contributed”.
Orsini has been married to a Briton for nearly 20 years, but has never wanted a UK passport. “I was happy with my Italian one and with being an EU citizen,” she says. She is “waiting for some clarity to emerge” before she applies for permanent residence. “I certainly don’t feel like becoming a British citizen under these circumstances.”
Many European academics who want to stay are worried about whether they will qualify for UK residency. Johannes Angermuller, professor of discourse at Warwick University and originally from Germany, explains: “A passport is the only serious guarantee you can go for. That means securing permanent residence. But to do that you need to prove you’ve been in the country for five years and spent no more than 450 days outside. I have a project that’s split between France and Warwick and I go to France every month. I travel for conferences all the time. My job is international – I just can’t fit into those sorts of limits.”
He says: “I don’t believe there will be a formal policy to deport Europeans but it’s a question of how nasty the rules will be and how difficult life will become.” He has 15 people on his research team, most of them Europeans who are worried about their future. The one Iranian researcher who works for him has spent £10,000 on visas. “He was two days from being deported because of an administrative cockup. So I know what it means not to have any guarantees,” Angermuller says. “If I don’t get a passport I know I just won’t be able to stay. It will become impossible.”
And he has other anxieties. He anticipates that half the research funding he can currently apply for will disappear, and says he can no longer apply for collaborative international research projects where he is named as the lead researcher. Overseas applications to his department have dropped already, and as 95% of its students are international he fears the department will have to downsize.
Meanwhile, his friendships with colleagues who voted to leave the EU have come to an abrupt end.
“The referendum vote has changed the way the country feels,” he says. “Can one still have trust in the country, its institutions and people? I just don’t get what could be positive about Brexit and frankly, it scares the shit out of me.”