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BREXIT dangers lie ahead for students: UPDATE - 2 Year degrees announced


Today the Universities minister Sam Gyimah, announced that universities would be given the 'opportunity' to offer degrees compressed into two years. Higher fees per year could be charged, but the overall cost of a degree would go down. However, parliament would have to ratify charging higher fees. 

This move appears to have a number of interesting features including lower overall costs for government and apparent 'efficiency' savings. However, with regard to efficiencies, the numbers seem superficial and do not add up. The efficiencies can only be delivered, without severe effects on research efforts, through a combination of working some staff harder and hiring low paid teaching staff on short-term contracts. Neither will look attractive as a career. 

Not so clear is that it might be part of a post-BREXIT plan as the UK prepares to diverge from EU norms. Divergence from the Bologna Process is one of the likely serious dangers as noted below.

Very importantly, the move pre-empts the Augar review of post-18 education,  now due in the new year. The recent leaks of the Augar deliberations and lower fees (see TEFS Friday November 2nd 2018) might explain the haste. Indeed, an  unseemly rush is apparent as it appears that universities may be allowed to move to two year degrees as early as next year. This effectively rides a 'coach and horses' through the Augar review and this will have consequences on its credibility. The lower fees linked to more intensive courses will only serve to help students from better off backgrounds where they receive more family support. But maybe this was the plan. It probably has not been thought through with regards to the adverse social mobility effects. Students needing jobs, and especially summer jobs, will be impacted greatly and are not likely to try for a two year degree. 

It also is being driven by the 'two culture' effect in government whereby most decision making is from a narrow humanities educational perspective (see TEFS Friday September 28th 2018). Anyone who has taught intensive Science and Engineering courses would think twice about such a move. My view, from a position of supporting
science students for many years, is that the intensity of such courses would have to ease off if students were to keep going throughout the year. This ultimately compromises standards. Alternatively, maintaining the status quo of intensity would increase the pressures on students and staff and could leave universities with 'blood on their hands' metaphorically speaking.

The ‘final’ deal made between the UK Government and the European Commission negotiators was published by the EU earlier this week. The ‘deal’ is that we will be allowed to stay in a single market and customs arrangement for a transition period to the end of 2020. Many suspect this will become the final arrangement, however it seems that anything could happen. The likelihood is that parliament will reject the ‘deal’ soon and three options remain. Either we get a new government after an election or we ‘crash’ out of the EU next year with no deal. The third option is a second referendum arranged by either party in government. It is looking more like the whole enterprise has been doomed from the start. The mood of most young people planning and building their careers will  turn from dismay to anger as they see opportunities dissipate along with influence and ties to the EU.

The 585 page document is almost impenetrable in places because of cross-referencing to other detailed regulations. Northern Ireland dominates with 109 mentions. Yet Scotland and Wales are not mentioned at all. The extensive cross referencing does, however, explain the monumental task that the negotiators faced. Upon reading the document it became painfully clear that there is far too much yet to agree with regard to students and universities. This uncertainty will haunt our institutions for a long time yet and will only serve to  undermine confidence further afield. Some simple 'do's and don'ts' seem to have eluded those negotiating for the UK.

Effects on universities dealing with unparalleled uncertainty.

The main worry lies with access to research and collaboration funding. It seems that current EU Framework projects, and ones started before next March, will have their funding guaranteed by the UK for the duration. But after that there is no indication of what might come about other than we will have little further say in the direction of research and priorities. We will tag a long for some research initiatives decided elsewhere and ignore others.

The key wording is clear on supporting any current projects:

“71. UK participation in programmes of the MFF 2014-2020 71. Following withdrawal from the Union, the UK will continue to participate in the Union programmes financed by the MFF 2014-202010 until their closure (excluding participation in financial operations which give rise to a contingent liability for which the UK is not liable as from the date of withdrawal). Entities located in the UK will be entitled to participate in such programmes. Participation in Union programmes will require the UK and UK beneficiaries to respect all relevant Union legal provisions including co-financing. Accordingly, the eligibility to apply to participate in Union programmes and Union funding for UK participants and projects will be unaffected by the UK’s withdrawal from the Union for the entire lifetime of such projects.”

However, what comes after that is as opaque as mud. It seems we might join in but will have no say in what programmes are initiated after 2020. Perhaps, this relieves the UK of any responsibility or influence but it will degrade our  hard won capability in the longer term.

“72. In the second phase of negotiations it could be agreed that some rules related to Union programmes that would be considered as not relevant in relation to a departing Member State would not apply. As part of the second phase of negotiations, the Union and the UK could also decide to agree to simplified procedures so as to avoid unnecessary administrative burdens extending well beyond the end of the current multiannual financial framework, provided that they respect the sound financial management of the Union budget and do not result in discrimination in favour of the UK or UK beneficiaries. The UK and the Union could also agree on administrative procedures to facilitate the management of specific programmes.”

Then again there is naïve optimism in our aspiration for joining in with some projects. Yet we will no longer be showing a lead.

“73. The UK states that it may wish to participate in some Union budgetary programmes of the new MFF post-2020 as a non-Member State.”

Effects on students choices and futures.

This is woefully uncertain after 2020. The degradation of UK research connections and capability will impact hugely upon the student experience in time. This needs to be much better calculated. There are also the potential losses in exchanges and the sharing of ideas that we cannot comprehend fully. 

The Erasmus exchange student placements may eventually cease and remove the lifeline for those students on low incomes that wish to gain experience in other European countries. Over 15,000 UK students have travelled to EU universities since its start. Equally our own students will see less of our European friends as students from the EU turn elsewhere. The long term effect of this isolationism are difficult to gauge. But we can expect fewer students coming from the EU in the longer run and less income for our universities at the outset..

The potential exclusion from the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions, whereby ‘early stage researchers’ travel to other EU countries to gain valuable experience, is more concerning. These are well paid positions and are a lifeline for students on low incomes wishing to pursue a research career. There is no indication that the door will remain open. The UK Research Office is a little more optimistic in its aspirational statement but this is no guarantee for those planning their careers at this point.

“The government is seeking discussions with the European Commission to agree the details of the UK’s participation as a third country. Third country participation does not extend to some Horizon 2020 calls; these include European Research Council (ERC) grants, some Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) and the SME instrument. The government is considering what other measures may be necessary to support UK research and innovation in the event that the guarantee and the extension are required.”

Reciprocal arrangements at risk.

We benefit currently from many arrangements that help students consider the option of higher education in another country. One of the basic foundations of this is the Bologna Process and the European Higher Education area. This is an arrangement that defines and standardises qualifications across the EU and other countries signed up. It ensures comparability in the standards and quality of higher-education qualifications. The UK was one of the early leaders in this process and our qualification structure is well embedded in the process. Thankfully this process is outside of the EU structures at present. Therefore it should in principle continue indefinitely. However, the influence of the EU is paramount and any decision to develop and change could exclude the UK. This would be a major blow that students might not see coming at first. Some of the more radical suggestions about the delivery of degrees in the UK might fall foul of The Bologna Process and this may be more likely to happen with the UK outside of the EU.

Other reciprocal arrangements ensure that UK students from elsewhere in the EU get equal treatment in the host country. This means that UK students can currently study in Germany and pay no fees. Similarly, they can go to The Netherlands and pay very low fees. This is attractive to those with little family finance and a determination to be more adventurous. While countries such as German may retain no fees for international students for now, this is certainly not guaranteed. Membership of the EU gave that guarantee.

Under ARTICLE 23 ‘Equal treatment’, it seems that most workers there will have some level of protection.

“1. In accordance with Article 24 of Directive 2004/38/EC, subject to the specific provisions provided for in this Title and Titles I and IV of this Part, all Union citizens or United Kingdom nationals residing on the basis of this Agreement in the territory of the host State shall enjoy equal treatment with the nationals of that State within the scope of this Part. The benefit of this right shall be extended to those family members of Union citizens or United Kingdom nationals who have the right of residence or permanent residence."

However, the position of students is to be excluded from these protections.

“2. By way of derogation from paragraph 1, the host State shall not be obliged to confer entitlement to social assistance during periods of residence on the basis of Article 6 or point (b) of Article 14(4) of Directive 2004/38/EC, nor shall it be obliged, prior to a person's acquisition of the right of permanent residence in accordance with Article 15 of this Agreement, to grant maintenance aid for studies, including vocational training, consisting in student grants or student loans to persons other than workers, self-employed persons, persons who retain such status or to members of their families.”

Our EU university staff sitting on career 'timebombs'.

It seems that those already in the UK are protected to some extent, as are all workers from the UK in the EU. This arrangement is reciprocal. However in the longer term. it seems that only those in the UK for over five years will retain full rights. One can assume that fewer will seek academic appointments in the UK in the coming years. Most UK university departments have many staff from elsewhere in the EU and we can expect a significant number of those to leave when they can. This will accelerated if the is a chance of no deal Brexit on the near horizon. The effect on students will be significant as their lecturers and tutors fade away.


The choices are narrowing fast as time moves on. A new government would need plenty time to renegotiate. But any likely  new leadership of the current government would catapult the UK into a monumental crisis and would surely need a proper mandate from the people to function. The best way out of the mess is to go to the people again, one way or another, with the stark facts clearly presented this time. Then we might all take more care to protect the futures of our young people.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.


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