Professor Charlie Jeffery, Professor of Politics and Senior Vice-Principal at the University of Edinburgh offers his perspective on recent developments.
Last week we heard the Prime Minister state at the start of the Conservative Party conference that she intends to trigger the formal negotiation process on Brexit by the end of March next year. According to EU rules this means that exit from the EU should follow no later than two years on from then. That at least gives us a framework for our own planning.
But we also heard language last week which will be seen as deeply worrying to many of us as it all seemed to point in the direction of potential greater restrictions on freedom of movement for international staff and students. We also heard a brief controversy at the LSE about whether EU nationals were still able to give advice to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on Brexit.
We should note that some of this language was directed to an audience of party activists and is not necessarily an indicator that government policy will unfold in the same way. Ministers have already rolled back on some of it. But the kind of language used can create a febrile atmosphere which many, myself included, find quite unnecessary. Such language may also easily produce misunderstandings. The controversy we saw last week about who can be trusted to advise the FCO likely falls under this category.
We need to be concerned that such language does not remain unchallenged. We are such a successful university, and the UK university sector is so successful as a whole, because ideas and the people who carry them – our staff and our students – flow across borders. The University benefits, and the UK also benefits, from as free a movement of ideas as we can have. We are naturally and rightly sceptical of policies which might limit that movement of people and ideas.
We will be putting that view robustly to the UK Government as it moves from party conference mode back into governing mode. Our ambition is to see a Brexit which leaves as free as possible the movement of staff and students between the EU and the UK and which maintains our access to those mechanisms – Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+ – which support collaboration and exchange across borders. We will press on every possible occasion and mobilise support from all quarters to try to achieve that outcome.
Our Principal recently expressed the maxim:
"As a community, we are determined that the University of Edinburgh will continue to wear its heart on its sleeve as a European and international university and I know that we will be even more global and outward-looking in the future, not less."
Given what we’ve heard in the last week, this is more important than ever.
Professor Charlie Jeffery
The University of Edinburgh