Will the UK Remain an Attractive Place for Foreign Academics After Brexit?

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By Ignacio de la Rasilla del Moral (Law Fellow 2011-12) , Senior Lecturer, Brunel University, London (*)

Answering this question, requires us first to understand the reasons why, in spite of the multitude of inconveniences that émigré scholars face, the UK was, until the announcement of the outcome of the EU referendum, an attractive place to develop an academic career.

The reasons for this can be classified for present purposes into five categories: the global influence of the English language as the main vernacular of scientific research; the prestige of the British intellectual cosmopolitan and liberal tradition; the hybrid intellectual position of the UK between the European and North-American approaches to academic work; the liberalised and meritocratic British academic market; and the relatively low competition that, until recently, the UK faced from other countries regarding the recruitment of foreign academics. These five reasons will be briefly examined in turn.

The English language has, indeed, long replaced other languages as the modern lingua franca of scientific research. Moreover, some of the most prestigious academic publishers of books and scientific journals in all the various areas of expertise in the large intellectual archipelago of the social sciences are located in the United Kingdom. The role of English as the dominant modern lingua franca for global scientific exchanges translates into the common perception among émigré academics that English is a professionally conductive choice for the pursuit of their academic careers. Brexit will not mean a dramatic decrease in the use of English as the main vehicular language of scientific research in the medium term. Therefore, at least from this perspective, the UK remains an attractive place for foreign scholars.

The prestige of the British intellectual cosmopolitan and liberal tradition is another reason why the UK, before Brexit, has traditionally been an attractive place for foreign academics to develop an academic career. Historically, this influence has been greatly facilitated by the historical position of the UK as a great power throughout the nineteenth century and great part of the twentieth century, the colossal extension of its former colonial empire, the super-power status of its most successful former colony, and the accompanying use of English as the lingua franca for scientific research worldwide.

However, the international prestige of the British liberal and cosmopolitan tradition rests nowadays partly on the shoulders of the multitude of non-British citizens who nurture it through their academic production, their advising and teaching roles in delivering manifold undergraduate and post-graduate courses all over the country. It is not unlikely that many of these scholars may currently be rethinking their professional life-project in a country which, worn out by years of austerity, has turned its back on what, for all its flaws, remains on paper the most advanced value-based and peaceful historical experiment of legal and political integration that a history littered with projects of conquests and subjugation of peoples in the name of religion, imperialist designs and totalitarian ideologies had ever witnessed. For the very same reason, many foreign academics – specially, EU citizens – might well be revisiting their priorities regarding the possibility of joining UK academia. Therefore, at least from the perspective of the traditional prestige of its cosmopolitan and liberal tradition, the UK academic world is losing some of its former splendour as an attractive place for foreign scholars.

The third reason behind the traditional attractiveness of the British academic world is that the UK has customarily been intellectually positioned between the European and the North-American approaches and attitudes toward scientific research. This favourable intellectual cross-bred position will be affected if the UK, as the nationalist overtones adopted by some of its politicians anticipate, adopts an even more marked isolationist and a ‘national interest first’ approach in the years to come. A similar phenomenon is apparent in the United States, in Donald Trump’s election as the U.S. President until 2021.  Non-British nationals based in the UK are, on the other hand, likely to be very reluctant to serve as the scientific hand-maidens of a foreign power that will soon not be part of the EU family of nations. Moreover, a disconnection of UK-based scientists from their geographically-closer EU-based colleagues, risks creating both a sociological and epistemological gap in the relationship of the British academic world with their EU-based counterparts in the years to come. Therefore, to the extent that exclusionary and nationalist attitudes appear to be on the rise in the UK and the United States, and the UK-EU divide may affect the academic partnership across the British Channel, the attractiveness of the UK as a place to develop an academic career for foreign academics is decreasing.

The fourth broad reason why the UK has traditionally been considered an attractive place to develop an academic career is its liberalised and meritocratic, as well as its horizontal, academic structure; a far cry from other hierarchical academic structures in other more rigid and civil-servant oriented European traditions. Although these characteristics may not appear to be prima facie endangered by Brexit, the fact remains that they can suffer under strained conditions in a less comparative, well-funded academic market. Salaries decrease, merit is not rewarded, vacant positions are not filled, new ones are not created, pressure increases on academics to obtain external funding and new top-down managerial structures are introduced – all of these put seriously into question the vaunted horizontal-based collegiality of the British academic system. Thus, maintaining a well-funded UK academic market, which requires the provision of extra UK tax-payers’ funding to replace EU sources, remains, now more than ever, a pre-condition for the UK to remain an attractive place for those wishing to develop an academic career in the UK in the years to come. However, the uncertainty that still surrounds this point reduces the attractiveness of the UK academic market for foreign academics.

The relative closure, amidst a major international economic crisis, of other academic markets to both national and foreign academics is the fifth traditional reason behind the attractiveness of the British academic world before Brexit.  Nowadays, however, in its search for the best and the brightest, the UK is already facing growing global competition from universities in, among other regions, Asia, particularly from Singapore, Hong-Kong and, increasingly, mainland China, as well as from many EU countries. Moreover, it is not unlikely that EU legislators will devise policies to lure back to the EU many of the highly-qualified EU nationals who are currently employed across UK universities. Therefore, in the face of enhanced academic recruitment competition for scholars who are professionally well positioned in an ever increasingly global academic market, the attractiveness of the UK as a place for foreign scholars to develop their academic careers is downward.

In conclusion, the UK legal academy maintains some of the features that made it attractive as a place to develop an academic career for foreign scholars before the outcome of the EU referendum. However, some of these features are already losing aspects of their former splendour, for the reasons briefly touched upon here.

Dr. Ignacio de la Rasilla del Moral, LLB (U.C., Madrid), MA & Ph.D. (The Graduate Institute, Geneva) LLM (Harvard) Max Weber Fellow (Law, 12’) (EUI) FHEA serves as Senior Lecturer in Law at Brunel Law School (Brunel University London)

(*) The MWPBlog is a platform for MW Fellows and former Fellows to address scholarly topics and comment on current affairs. The thoughts expressed in the posts represent solely the views of the posting Fellows and not of the Max Weber Programme

(The present text is an adapted version of a short-piece prepared by the author for a policy-report by the think-thank Britain in Europe www.brineurope.com  based at Brunel University London.)