Three-D Issue 27: Pawns, chips and showing some humanity

About 17% of all teaching and research posts at UK universities are held by non-British EU citizens. About 14% of all research funds for British universities come from the EU. About 5% of all undergraduate students are non-British EU citizens. British universities have benefited enormously from the work of non-British EU citizens and from European funding. As a consequence of the EU referendum result, all of these are threatened. However, an instrumental cost-benefit analysis of the UK’s membership of the EU for universities in the UK should not be the only or even prime consideration.

The May government has sought to respond to some of these threats to the quality of UK higher education. In August Philip Hammond guaranteed funding for existing Horizon 2020 projects and for projects awarded up to the UK’s exit from the European Union (presumably in early 2019) that continue beyond lifetime of the UK’s membership. In October it was announced that non-British EU students starting their courses on or before October 2017 would pay the same fess as UK students and be eligible for tuition fee loans for the duration of their studies. Despite this it appears that there has been a 9% drop in applications from non-British EU citizens this year. However, the position of non-British EU colleagues working in universities has not been addressed. Quite the reverse, in fact. They are part of the 2.9 million non-British EU citizens living in the UK who have become ‘pawns’, ‘bargaining chips’ and ‘cards’ in the impending Brexit negotiations. They are being treated as a means to an end and not as ends in themselves and a response based on a cost-benefit analysis misses the moral injury that has been caused.

Unfortunately, this does not appear to be appreciated entirely by the University and College Union. Sally Hunt, its General Secretary, called on the government to ‘show some humanity’ and wrote in a Times Higher article: ‘we need a commitment that those EU nationals who are here now can stay. Their economic contribution is enormous and any other message – such as the idea that they could be used as bargaining chips in the Brexit negotiations – will damage the UK’s reputation.’ Indeed it should damage the UK’s reputation but this is not the point.

It is not simply a matter of recognising the economic contribution of non-British EU citizens to the UK and beyond or their social, cultural and political contributions to the UK and beyond but recognising them as citizens. Rights to work, live, retire, access to healthcare and welfare, and the right to vote in local elections comes with EU law. International law applies primarily to property and contracts. At the very least, the UK government should announce now that non-British EU citizens will have the same rights post-Brexit as before and should work to relax requirements and fast-track applications for permanent residency and citizenship. Could this help redress the moral injury caused? And the alienation and outrage felt by considerable numbers of EU citizens in the UK, whether British or not, who have lost their country as well as Europe? Instead of which we have the UK’s government’s laughable negotiating model of ‘have one’s cake and eat it’. We need to protest not just on the basis of cost-benefit analysis to UK universities and UK as a whole but on the principle of recognition of rights to citizenship.

Posted by Einar Thorsen