What’s the likely impact of Brexit on Higher Education in Northern Ireland?

Guest post by Cathy Gormley-Heenan, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research & Impact at Ulster University. This article is part of an ongoing blog series ‘Brexit Countdown’ by the Political Studies Association of Ireland (PSAI) and Political Studies Association (PSA).

When you hear the words Northern Ireland and Brexit, I know you automatically think ‘backstop’, but the focus of media on the backstop issue, whilst completely understandable, has had the unintended consequence of diverting attention away from the other likely implications of Brexit on Northern Ireland that are not directly backstop related. Take, for example, the issue of higher education. As the days to Brexit now count down in earnest, it feels very much like the number of ways in which higher education in Northern Ireland will be impacted goes up!

Since 24 June 2016, universities across the UK have been very vocal about the potential impact of the referendum result on a number of key areas, not least around research funding, collaboration and facilities, staff mobility and student mobility. There’s been some progress since that time not least in terms of the UK Government’s commitment to underwriting funding for approved projects in the current European research funding framework – Horizon 2020 – and others. But there is still no certainty that UK institutions will be able to participate in future programmes. To continue to have the influence and impact that the current research funding and support structure that the EU currently facilitates, we must find ways to protect and promote university research and innovation in Europe.

Closely linked to this is the issue of mobility and attracting the world-class staff to our universities. For Northern Ireland institutions, there are two elements to this. As the University with the most westerly campus in the UK (our Magee campus in Derry/ Londonderry, just miles from what will become the UK’s border with the EU), Ulster University faces a particular challenge. 20% of staff based at our Magee campus are from the Republic of Ireland and therefore daily mobility is a very important issue for them and us a university. Brexit will have day to day implications for our staff and students. Very practical concerns that go beyond getting to work but also include things such as harmonisation of tax, accessing bank accounts, being charged for using bank cards at work, roaming charges on mobile phones to name but a few.

And of course, academics, researchers and business support professionals from across the EU are a vital part of our institutions and we need to continue to attract them to Northern Ireland post Brexit. However, the proposed salary threshold of £30,000 outlined in the UK Government’s Immigration White paper would pose a real challenge in terms of our technical support staff. 69% of our technical support staff earn less than this and indeed the average salary in Northern Ireland is £24,000, meaning this is an issue that will impact not just universities but the region as a whole.

As a region for whom economic development and global competitiveness is essential, we are concerned about the impact of Brexit on student mobility. Students from outside NI make an invaluable contribution both to university life and to wider society and the economy. Based on 2011/12 student figures, EU students in Northern Ireland generate over £78 million annually for the economy and support over 840 jobs.

However, Northern Ireland is doubly disadvantaged in attracting international students and this will be further exacerbated by Brexit. International students make up a relatively small share of Northern Ireland’s student body compared to universities in GB, at 9.3 percent compared to 19.2 percent. Meanwhile, a two-year post-study work system is available for international students in the Republic of Ireland. The Third Level Graduate Programme provides the opportunity for students to remain in Ireland for up to 24 months following their qualification, depending on the level of study. It makes sense that a Northern Ireland specific post-study work programme for international students will be critical if Northern Ireland is, in any way, to address the imbalance in our ability to compete with our GB and RoI counterparts following Brexit.

Brexit is, quite simply, an issue that fundamentally challenges higher education across all the UK, but particularly so in Northern Ireland.

Professor Cathy Gormley-Heenan is Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research & Impact at Ulster University. She is also a Professor of Politics with research interests in areas of political elites, peace processes, the politics of divided societies, public policy and governance.


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