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Guest Post: “Keeping British Universities international: what has immigration ever done to us?” by Mari-Cruz Garcia



It is hard to believe that the ALT Annual Conference 2019 will be the last time in the organisation’s history in which educators from Scottish and British Universities meet their European colleagues as part of a common EU education space. This fact is even harder to accept if we consider that 62% of the Scottish population and 74% of the Edinburgh residents voted to remain in the European Union.

The EU is far from being a model of internal transparency and democratic fairness – and I would certainly welcome a reform of its governance bodies that would give equal weight to the voices of all state members. Yet, imperfect as it may be, the truth is that EU membership has brought a certain stability, economic growth and social progress to most of its members.

When it comes to HE, being part of the EU family has proved to be beneficial for  both sides of the Canal de la Mancha, with the creation of organisations such as the European Universities Association (EUA), Association for Medical Education in Europe (AMEE),  European Association for Distance Learning (EADL), European Association of Technology Enhanced Learning (EATEL), amongst many others. We should also consider the success of Pan-European education initiatives such as the Erasmus programmes, the Open Education Europa portal and the OER movement, the Life Long  Learning Platform (LLP) and so many other collaboration programmes that cannot be included here.

The freedom of movement that comes with EU membership has already benefited three generations of European and British academics who have been able to live, work and research together without the stress of having to apply through a 4 tier immigration system which is completely dehumanised as  our non-EU colleagues know well).

British HE providers have also benefited greatly from EU membership. British HE institutions receive 16% of their research income from the EU and are heavily represented in the top 50 of higher education institutions ranked by success that attracts EU grants. As a matter of fact, British universities received £790 million from ‘EU sources’ in 2013/14, (this is acknowledged by Full Facts UK no less).

British universities have a long tradition of internationalisation and foreign staff have always been welcome in them. The main argument of the Leave Campaign was based on the social construct that immigration in general, and EU freedom of movement in particular, was detrimental to the British economy and to the ‘British worker ‘. Let’s consider how immigration has affected British universities

Firstly, UK Universities estimate that international students generate more than 25 billion for the UK economy. International students are not immigrants, however if ’our’ British immigration system is not sufficiently hardened, they may want to remain here after their studies contributing with their new acquired skills to the social and economic progress of British society.

Secondly, let’s consider the composition of the University work force. According to HESA, in 2016-2017, 31 % of the academic staff were from outside the UK (representing a 1% percentage increase compared to 2015/2016 figures).  This percentage shows that universities in the UK are still international, but not to the extent of representing a concern for the average British citizen:

Academic staff Managers, directors and senior officialsProfessional occupationsAssociate professional and technical occupationsClerical and manual occupationsTotal academic staff
Other (including mixed)107,4805007,545
Not known1516,94570017,030

Not known

Total staff540204,660166010206,870

Academic staff by nationality and ethnicity, 2016-2017. Source: HESA.


Internationalisation shows lower rates for non-academic staff, with only 6% of the work force having an EU (excluding the UK) nationality, and 4% having a non-EU nationality. These proportions were the same as in 2015/16, a fact that clearly contradicts one of the Brexiters´ arguments that EU immigration is growing without control.

Managers, directors and senior officialsProfessional occupationsAssociate professional and technical occupationsAdministrative and secretarial occupationsSkilled trades occupationsCaring, leisure and other service occupationsSales and customer service occupationsProcess, plant and machine operativesElementary occupationsTotal non-academic staff
Other (including mixed)17010101205170010018080206055070
Not known420202022403020415365135180159510390
Other EU405296028504050355445160115227013610
Not known40220345365959510852301490
Total staff11190428404733069315654072002345157024505212835

Non-academic staff by nationality and ethnicity, 2016-2017. Source: HESA


A closer look at the figures reveals that, in terms of internationalisation and inclusion, there are still challenges to overcome when it comes to career progression and breaking the ‘glass ceiling’ : senior management positions are overwhelming occupied by white British staff (both male and female), while only 9% of black and ethnic minority (BEM) academics and 10% of  non-UK academics manage to make it to the top. These percentages are 9.9% and 5%, respectively, for non-academic staff.

The creation of the Equality Challenge Unit (now Advance HE), more than a decade ago, with the approval of the Athena Swan and Race Equality Chapters were positive initiatives in  terms of narrowing the gaps between those who can and those who cannot progress in their university careers. I have been a member of Athena Swan Steering groups and have taken part in other equality projects such as the ‘One Workplace Equal Rights Project’ of Scottish Trade Union Congress (STUC). In my experience, the Equality chapters have enabled significant progress when it comes to equal opportunities for foreign and BEM university workers. But we are still far from reaching our goal.

We are living in uncertain times and the first casualty of uncertainty is fairness. Even tough British universities are doing well internationally , Brexit will have an economic impact on their budgets. Until alternative sources of incomes can be found, the likely pauperisation of work conditions and the threat of job losses in the horizon will relegate equality to a second plane. This will also affect British staff, both academic and non-academic, because when meritocracy disappears, it is only a matter of time until new grounds can be found to discriminate against someone because those in power decide so.

British Universities are international AND European, and we should keep them that way. Foreign and British staff, immigrants and locals, also want to keep them fair supporting the remit of the Equality chapters. Let’s find ways of working together, beyond the chauvinism of our politicians, and let’s hope that when we-educators from different countries- meet in future ALT events we can still share good practices in education and technology.

Mari Cruz García is a digital education consultant who has lived 18 years in the UK. She has been equality officer at Dundee University College Union and she is a delegate at the Consejo de Residentes Españoles en el Norte del Reino Unido, representing the Spanish citizens in the EU27 Representative Group of the EU Exit Office of the Home Office.

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