The potential risk to UK universities from post-Brexit academic flight has been laid bare in a report that reveals there are regions where up to half of academic staff in some departments are EU nationals.
The British Academy report [pdf] warns that economics and modern language departments will be particularly badly hit if European academics leave the UK, with more than a third of staff in each discipline currently from EU member states.
The risk is particularly acute in Northern Ireland where a quarter of all academic staff – across all subjects – are from EU countries, while in the West Midlands almost half of modern languages staff are from the EU.
British universities have warned the government they risk losing talented EU staff who need greater clarity on their post-Brexit rights if they are to commit to remain in the UK.
Now the British Academy, which is the public voice for the humanities and social sciences, has named the subjects most at risk as a result of the continuing uncertainty over immigration rules after Brexit.
Top of the “at risk” list are economics and modern languages, with 36% of economists and 35% of academics in modern language departments from EU countries. Next are mathematics (29%), physics (28%), classics and chemical engineering (26%) and politics and international relations (25%).
The report, Brexit Means … ?, warns that the humanities and social sciences will be particularly hard hit by any detrimental change to immigration rules post-Brexit. Six out of the top 10 “at risk” subjects with the highest proportions of non-UK EU staff are in the humanities and social sciences.
Professor Ash Amin, who is head of geography at Cambridge University and acts as foreign secretary for the British Academy, said: “It is critical that the government takes action and puts an end to this uncertainty. Today’s report depicts precisely what is at stake: the UK’s position as a world leader in higher education and research.
“That the UK attracts such a high proportion of staff from abroad is a testament to the competitiveness of the humanities and social sciences. Many of the people from this talent pool will be asking themselves: do I see the future of my career in this country?
“We are calling on government to guarantee a right to remain indefinitely for non-UK EU academics and their dependents working here.”
Almost 40,000 non-UK EU staff currently work in UK universities, who constitute 12% of all full-time equivalent staff across the higher education sector. Most work in London and south-east England where more than 17,000 are employed in universities and almost 4,500 work in Scotland.
In a separate report published on Tuesday, the British Council argues that in order for the UK to succeed post-Brexit, there will need to be a push to improve language learning. Mandarin and Arabic are among the languages the UK will need, as well as Spanish, French and German.
The report, Languages for the Future, notes that only a third of Britons are currently able to hold a conversation in another language, with dwindling numbers choosing to study a modern foreign language either at school or university.
Official figures from the Joint Council for Qualifications showed that there has been a 7% drop in the number of pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland taking GCSE language exams in the past year – and a 1% drop at A-level.
Vicky Gough, a schools adviser at the British Council, said: “Languages are invaluable for a generation growing up in an increasingly connected world. If the UK is to be truly global post-Brexit, languages must become a national priority.
“At a time when global connections matter more than ever, it is worrying that the UK is facing a languages deficit. We cannot afford the apathy about the need for languages to continue and must champion these skills. If we don’t act to tackle this shortfall, we’re set to lose out both economically and culturally.”