Members of a UK House of Commons committee have published a report calling on the government to act now to remove uncertainty around the future of EU students and staff at Britain’s universities which could damage their world class reputation in the wake of Brexit.

“The uncertainty over EU students and EU staff needs to be reduced immediately,” the committee says in a report published this month. Guaranteeing that the 2018/19 student cohort will have the same fees and tuition loan access is one way to create short-term stability. To protect university staff, the government should react to the delay in reaching a reciprocal agreement by unilaterally guaranteeing their rights before the end of 2017. Sixteen percent of staff in UK universities come from the EU27. “A delay in confirming their rights will only intensify the current uncertainty for universities, and likely lead to a significant brain drain of talented staff,” the committee says.

The report also recommends that the immigration system after Brexit must be shaped to cater more particularly for the needs of higher education, facilitating rather than obstructing, movement of people from and to UK universities. It calls on the government to remove overseas students from its net migration target of 100 000 per year, to make it clear it wants talent to come to the UK. “The refusal to do so is putting at risk the higher education sector’s share of the international student market,” the MPs say.

The MPs also want the government to commit to Horizon 2020 and future research framework programmes, to ensure ongoing research collaboration with the EU. There should also be a contingency plan for investing the same level of funding received from the EU if access cannot be negotiated. If it is not possible to remain part of the Erasmus+ programme in future, they recommend designing a home-grown replacement.

According to the committee, higher education should be supported by a new regional growth fund to replace the investment from European structural funding. Whatever the exact outcome of Brexit negotiations, it is important the higher education sector is given enough notice of any changes to the migration status of EU students, their fee rate and access to loans. This will allow universities to adjust and plan ahead and ensure that changes to fees or loans do not occur midway through a student’s course.

In the committee’s view, the best model for EU students is to retain a reciprocal open approach with light touch controls, such as visa-free access, which would enable preservation of a system closely resembling freedom of movement.

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