Brexit: Interview with the Principal

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Credit: The Times / PA

Georgina Hayes & Tara Gandhi
Editor & Investigations Editor

The Glasgow Guardian spoke to University of Glasgow Principal and top economist Anton Muscatelli on Brexit and what it means for UK universities

Universities in the UK have not been shy when it comes to making it plain what Brexit will mean for higher education: in November 2018, higher education institutions in Scotland released a joint statement on the importance of limiting the impact of Brexit, and just this month university leaders around the UK as a whole called a no-deal Brexit scenario “one of the biggest threats our universities have faced”.

With Theresa May’s Brexit deal now dead in the water and uncertainty around what Brexit will now mean – or whether it will even go ahead – at an all-time high, The Glasgow Guardian spoke to University of Glasgow Principal, Russell Group Chair and top economist Anton Muscatelli about what Brexit will mean for UK universities.

One of the biggest concerns of UK universities has been funding, with many institutions worried that Brexit will negatively impact the sector’s access to EU funding programmes such as Horizon 2020, which will have given out over €80 billion of funding by 2020. On whether, as Principal of the University of Glasgow, he’s found the University to be receiving less funding already, Muscatelli responded measuredly: “It’s very difficult to make a definitive assessment […] But if you look at Horizon 2020 data, the UK seems to have fallen back in the last couple of years.

“We as a University have been receiving less funding from Horizon 2020 than we did a of couple years ago, but is that due to Brexit? Is it influencing the way in which grants are decided? I think the jury’s out on that. It could be said people have been put off applying, and that could have an effect. A lot of scientists are saying ‘I’m not going to go in for ERC [European Research Council] funding because I’m a bit concerned about what would happen post-Brexit.”

Still, the UK government has offered some assurances that they would fund some schemes where money has been lost from EU grants, but this hasn’t seemed to reassure the sector: “The worry we have is that we get a large amount of money from the EU – for the government to make all that money up, with all the other pressures on the UK budget such as health, social care and housing, will that [higher education funding] be a priority? I think that’s a real concern.”

Muscatelli added that the ERC has been a good source of funding for research for the arts, social sciences and humanities in particular. “Will that be made up?” he asked rhetorically, warning of the potential for the arts and humanities to suffer disproportionately. Although he insisted that it’s hypothetical, Muscatelli thinks that in terms of funding priorities, there will likely be a shift towards STEM.

“As somebody who comes from the social sciences, I think the amount they [EU] fund in fundamental arts and social sciences research has been really good. The proportion going to these [subjects] is increasing in the ERC over the last two cycles of European funding, so that to me is something that would be a concern. I can’t see that being made up that easily.”

But funding allocation isn’t the only area where there may be a discrepancy for the sector in a Brexit outcome: a recent Times article suggested that universities would start accepting offers from more international students to protect themselves against further loss of income. On this, Muscatelli expressed concern that students from the EU may no longer want to come to Glasgow to study disciplines that were previously free or subsidised with the UK in the EU.

“Many of the students coming to study subjects like mathematics and computing science are from the EU – many of these funded places are EU students. These disciplines are key to sectors in the UK like cybersecurity, financial services and manufacturing. Will they be able to fill these spaces?”

In the event that Brexit does indeed impact how many students come to study particular courses – which Muscatelli views as likely – he fears there will be a sector disparity. He also acknowledges that universities may be forced to become even more market-oriented, as “if you change system[s] from one that is more balanced to one driven simply by student demand – because it is going to be student demand that will drive market-related fees – then inevitably you will have a marketised system.”

Still, Muscatelli insists that universities like Glasgow or Edinburgh “are in a different position to other universities” as “what would happen is we would try and recruit more domestic students”. But somewhere in the system, he says, there will be a shortage in students and “the system as a whole will be changed”.

International collaboration is also a large part of the University’s research output, and Muscatelli explains that this could be negatively impacted in a similar way to freedom of movement. “The problem with losing the ERA [European Research Area] is we will struggle to move parts of grants across borders,” he said. “No other grant collaboration allows that.” The ERA allows a “genuine freedom of movement when it comes to research and funding,” which Muscatelli says will be “very difficult to reproduce”.

On the widely expected £30,000 salary threshold for skilled workers from the EU moving to the UK, Muscatelli said universities are “very concerned”, emphasizing that anywhere outside of London, that is “a very high starting salary”. However, Muscatelli fears that small businesses will be hit the worst by this: “At least we [the University] can sponsor these people; small businesses won’t be able to do that. It’s a real barrier.”

On barriers, it’s hard to ignore that the University of Glasgow – being a Scottish Ancient and a Russell Group – perhaps has more to lose but still less to fear from Brexit than other universities. “Obviously it will be more of a threat to universities who find it harder to attract paying students […] We mustn’t underestimate the damage it will have on everyone and their interconnectedness with the world.”

Still, despite Muscatelli and universities in the UK as a whole being largely against Brexit – and quite candid in communicating the damage it could do to the sector – universities across the country haven’t gone so far as to officially endorse a “Remain” option, or a People’s Vote. In a Brexit summit hosted by the University of Glasgow last November, many academics made plain their disappointment with Universities Scotland for releasing highly politicised statements but not fully endorsing a second referendum and a subsequent remain option.

“We’ve taken a strong stance as an institution,” Muscatelli insists, distancing himself from criticising other universities that haven’t done so. “Remain is probably the best option and maybe we should have another look at that now we know what leave really means. Clearly other universities are more cautious about that. [But] it’s more important that we find common ground – no deal is absolutely disastrous, the worst possible outcome. I think as a sector we should be strong and clear about this. If there is a chance, ideally we should have another think about whether we can remain.

“As someone who is an academic leader, I feel like I have a lot of freedom to say [that] Brexit is wrong; remain is the best outcome.”

On whether, in the event of a second referendum, the University of Glasgow would break rank with Universities Scotland and officially endorse remain, Muscatelli said: “I think we have already gone beyond Universities Scotland; we have [had a] much more proactive and pro-remain stance.”

Although a lot of the predictions made on either side of the Brexit debate have been accused of hyperbole, Muscatelli seemed sincere when he said that Brexit in any form will “radically change” the sector. He concedes that the threat may not be existential to the University of Glasgow, but “it will be for some universities”.