Prime Minister Theresa May returns from her hiking holidays to face a fresh series of steep challenges including the rejection of her EU citizen’s rights proposal by the UK’s 24 leading universities. Russell Group, representing the UK’s top research universities, has a list of ten points regarding the UK government’s position on EU nationals “requiring greater clarity”. 

The first item on the list that they want addressed is the suggestion that EU citizens who leave the UK for two years may lose their legal status, “unless they have strong ties”. The Russell Group explains that: “Academics and students often spend periods of time abroad for study, training, career development and research collaborations.” They’re seeking “a broad interpretation of ‘strong ties’” so that academics and students won’t lose their settled status when they leave for two years. 

While May has been away, free movement has been a topic of disagreement among her cabinet. Home Secretary Amber Rudd corrected Brandon Lewis, her junior minister, after he announced that free movement would end in March 2019. Rudd said that there would be very similar arrangements for EU workers until around 2022. She’s been criticized for having waited until 27 July to order a year-long study of EU migration to be undertaken by the Migratory Advisory Committee. With Brexit just 20 months away, the study, intended to help design the post-Brexit immigration system, would be concluded a mere six months before March 2019. 

With recent emphasis on business concerns about how freedom of movement policies might impact British companies, universities are now putting forward their concerns so as not to be left out of the decision-making process. It’s possible that the points made by the Russell Group could work as a blueprint to help craft an immigration policy that serves both British businesses and universities. Neither sectors appreciate waiting in limbo to find out what the specifics of the UK’s policies might be and when, precisely, they might begin.

Rising sense of urgency

The Russell Group’s one-page briefing is in response to the government’s 26 June Brexit policy publication on EU rights.  In their introduction, they explain why they need more information regarding freedom of movement policy plans: “Whilst this is the Government’s first position for the negotiations, this lack of clarity is causing considerable concern for EU nationals at our universities and impacting on our ability to recruit talented staff for the EU”.  

The Russell Groups’ head of policy, Jessica Cole, echoed the need for prompt detailed information, saying: “Brexit is causing uncertainty and anxiety for EU staff, who need clarity over their future rights as soon as possible.” The universities she represents employ 24,800 members of staff from EU countries, many of whom have brought their families to live with them in the UK. Speaking for the group she adds: “We urge the Government to secure an agreement with the EU on citizens’ rights at the earliest possibility.”

In June, the Guardian reported that over 1,300 academics from the EU have left their positions at UK universities since the vote to Brexit, stoking fears of a “Brain Drain”. Statistics from 2015 reveal that around 17% of UK academics, a figure of over 33,000 people, were born in EU countries. The prestigious London School of Economics, a Russell Group member, reports that 38% of their staff are EU nationals.

Students also need to have answers sooner, rather than later, in the negotiation process. This is addressed in the eighth point made on the list: a request that students beginning courses in the 2017/18 and 2018/19 academic years be given reassurance by the government. They request the students have permission to stay and work once they complete their studies, “and be eligible for settled status after accruing five years residence.”

Their other points requiring clarity:

A system for processing applications should be developed that is efficient enough to put minimum burden on those applying. A grace period should be extended, if the government hasn’t put this system in place by the time it’s required.

The Home Office plans to use existing applicant information to minimise the evidence that applicants need to provide. It could go further and, using the data, automatically contact those who are eligible for temporary leave or settled status, to offer them this status.

Instead of requiring each EU citizen living in the UK to apply for a new settled status, people from EU countries who already have permanent residence status needn’t be re-assessed. They should automatically be granted settled status.

The cost for applications should be the same £65 rate currently charged for permanent residency.

The government should support both universities and businesses by developing employer guidance that is crafted in consultancy with the range of sectors that employ EU nationals.

The cut-off date for the changes should be the date the UK leaves the EU so that those affected can plan accordingly.

The uncertainty regarding the rights of families must be minimised by providing policy rules as soon as possible. Also, children born to EU nationals in the UK should not be required five years residency to acquire settled status.

All professional qualifications obtained in the UK or the EU, before the UK withdraws from the EU, should continue to be recognised across borders.