University Brexit Open Meeting: As It Happened

Luke Hallam 20 February 2019
Credit: Lauren Chan

This article outlines the main points made at the Brexit open meeting. For full details, visit https://www.eu.admin.cam.ac.uk/

EEA = European Economic Area, which includes the countries of the EU in addition to Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein.

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As Brexit looms, and the major parties continue to rupture, the prospect of leaving the European Union on 29th March without a deal becomes ever more real.

On Tuesday 19th February the University held an open meeting before a packed lecture theatre, outlining precisely what is known – and what remains unknown – about the implications of Brexit in all its possible forms on the University, its students, and its staff.

The meeting was opened by Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope, who in October released a video assurance that the University is “not just passively waiting for Brexit to happen”. The evidence of this was presented before the hall by a number of panel speakers: Eilís Ferran, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Institutional and International Relations; Anthony Dangerfield, Head of the International Student Office; and Chris Abell, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research.

TCS attended the meeting, and the events as they unfolded are listed below.

Toope opened with a speech outlining the current situation, in which he lamented that “we don’t know how, when, or for what purpose we are leaving [the EU]”. The situation, he continued, “fills me with frustration and disbelief”. Nevertheless, he affirmed the University’s willingness to “brace” for any eventuality, and its “resolve to be a globally successful university no matter how the situation unfolds”. He went on to list the University’s priorities, stressing that it must remain “globally competitive”. He welcomed the fact that the government released a white paper at the end of last year outlining plans for ‘the UK’s future skills-based immigration system’, but expressed concern about the inclusion of “arbitrary measures”, such as a minimum threshold of £30,000 a year in earnings being proposed for migrant workers coming from the EU27. This, he pointed out, would exclude most technicians. He concluded on the optimistic note that “there will be a life after Brexit”.

[note – watch out for the fact that some of the themes addressed by panellists were elaborated upon further in the discussion.]

Ferran was the first panellist to address the hall, and spoke about the implications of Brexit for the following:

Non-EU EEA (+Swiss) staff

If staff are here before March 29th, she told the hall, nothing will change, and they will continue to have “exact same entitlements” to live and work. They will, however, need to apply for the EU’s Settled Status Scheme, which they can do up until the end of 2020 (under May’s Withdrawal Agreement, which she is currently attempting to get through parliament, this would be extended until 2021).

UK staff in the EU

This is more complex, and “depends on decisions of individual members states”. She emphasised that the EU Commission has called on them to take a generous approach, however UK nationals should be checking with the embassies of the relevant countries.

Passports/Travel/Insurance

In the event of no deal, you must make sure that your passport has at least 6 months before expiry before travelling in Europe. Ferran stressed that she didn’t think it would be the case that – as some have claimed – “planes won’t fly”, however there may be delays. Without a deal, European Health Insurance Cards (under which EEA and Swiss nationals receive medical treatment in another member state free or at a reduced cost) will no longer be valid. Those with settled status can use the NHS regardless of EHIC, however. People should consult the University’s website about the travel insurance it offers to staff.

People coming after 29th March

The new post-Brexit immigration regime won’t have been completed by 29th of March. The bridge to the new scheme in the event of no deal will be ‘temporary leave to remain’ (TRM) status, although EU nationals arriving after 29th March will be free to stay for 3 months. To stay longer than this, they will need TRM status, which will grant them permission to stay for 3 years. Ferran noted that this may cause enormous problems for hiring staff, or if students are arriving for courses that last longer than three years, and the University is “lobbying hard” for clarity.

Next, Dangerfield spoke about issues that may specifically impact students.

Applying for the Settlement Scheme, he told the hall, you will need a passport, a photo, and a student status letter. Because EEA nationals applying after 29th March must apply for this new status, and a small cohort of postgrads begin at the start of Easter, the University would help them apply for the status if necessary, he said. Sessions for help with settled status are running on March 5th and on March 12th.

Impact of no deal for students taking part in a year abroad, or course-related fieldwork.

He said that the University’s travel insurance covers postgrads on trips undertaken as part of their studies, as well as undergrads undertaking supervised departmental field-trips. However, students on their year abroad will need to take out their own travel insurance, and they should check the relevant immigration requirements in the event of no deal.

Future cohorts

For EU students starting in 2019/20, the same arrangements will be in place as for current students: they will be eligible for home fee status, as well as support from Student Finance England. However, there is no confirmation yet of the fee status or eligibility for financial support for students from 2020/21. The University, he continued, has launched a student support initiative campaign to raise £500 million to support students.

Erasmus+

166 students made use of Erasmus+ programmes in 2017/18, and under May’s withdrawal agreement the UK would continue to participate until 2020/21. In the event of no deal, continued participation is uncertain. The Government with engage with the EU Commission with the aim of securing continued access. Students currently on a year abroad or using Erasmus shouldn’t be affected.

Credit: Lauren Chan

 

Chris Abell spoke about the likely impacts for funding and grants.

The European Research Council (ERC) provides large amounts of funding for research and grants. The UK has participated in 185 ERC-funded projects, the most out of any country.

Under the draft withdrawal agreement, there will be a transition period until December 2020 during which time current eligibility to apply for ERC programmes will apply. After this point, a new partnership will hopefully have been negotiated. This partnership could take the form of ‘associated status’, in which the UK is eligible to still participate in much EU funding.

However, without a deal the UK become a Third Country (TC). TCs can only apply under certain conditions: to funding opportunities that are open to TCs; to schemes specifically opened to UK for some scientific reason (our particular strength, e.g. in health), or where expertise is unique to a UK.

The University, he continued, has set up a working group to deal with these issues, and it will try to ensure that sudden gaps in funding are bridged and mitigated.

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Q&A – members of the audience then asked questions. A selection is outlined below.

Note: the questions and answers have been paraphrased.

Q – How will the University make sure that it is still offering competitive incentives to workers?

A – the University is looking at how its lowest paid staff can be supported financially. There is a staff survey, which people are encouraged to complete so the University knows what they can do that will be most beneficial. Working groups are looking into transport, housing, and childcare.

Q– Can you comment on possibility of disruption to lab supplies?

A – “We honestly don’t know” the extent of disruption at ports and airports. The University’s main supplier of cryogenic gases, for example, has assured it that as long as there isn’t “panic or stockpiling” in the system, supplies will be relatively stable. There are no certainties, however.

Q – Why was my National Identity card not accepted when applying for the Settlement Scheme? Do I need to get a passport?

A – The EU settlement scheme is still in the ‘test phase’ before the final system. Restrictions mean that you need a passport, and you need to be able to use an Android device to upload your documents. The University has an android device that people can use. People with concerns might want to wait until the ‘test phase’ ends in a couple of months.

Q – How will the University make sure that it continues to be a welcoming place?

A – Toope emphasised that they will “do everything we can rhetorically to make people feel welcome”. He said that the question prompted him to raise this issue in his next meeting with colleges.

Q – How can we get the student status letter needed to apply to the Settlement Scheme?

A – The letter can be requested from colleges.

Q – What if I am travelling on the day we leave the EU with no deal?

A – Coming back into UK will be the same regardless of status. You will come in the same way. If you have settled status or if you have not yet applied and are eligible, your rights are the same. If you’re not eligible, you are still covered by the 3 months period.

Q – Will there be any issues for EEA students planning to work?

A – There is no expectation that employers will immediately undertake right to work checks on EEA nationals. These could, however, be in a couple of years.

Reacting to the event, CUSU President Evie Aspinall told TCS:

“There are many unknowns regarding Brexit still but the University has extensive plans in place and is doing everything it can. CUSU has been at the centre of many of the conversations and I’m confident that student concerns are being considered. I hope the open meeting today alleviated some of the concerns, and I think that at the very least it showed that the University is as prepared as it can be!”

She did, however, stress that in the future “a student-specific open meeting would be beneficial.”