Barred from research? UK chancellor Philip Hammond helps set policies that could determine whether EU nationals in the UK can still work there after Brexit. Credit: Jane Barlow/Reuters

British universities fear losing large swathes of their research staff as the country faces up to Brexit, the split with the European Union. More than 31,000 academics at UK universities are non-British EU citizens, and so may lose their rights to live in the United Kingdom after Brexit.

Last week, a UK parliamentary committee published evidence from British institutions and funding agencies on the problem, as part of its inquiry into the effects of Brexit on the UK higher education system. It is "crucial that the long-term position of non-UK EU nationals is clarified as soon as possible", said Research Councils UK, the umbrella body for the country's seven main grants-funding agencies, in its written statement.

Unless the government guarantees EU national academic staff the right to remain, it may not be easy for them to stay. Many have not lived in the United Kingdom long enough to be classified as permanent residents under current rules, and a large fraction do not earn enough on academic salaries to stay by gaining a ‘skilled worker’ visa. Nature runs through the numbers to illustrate the scale of the problem.

Science shock

On average, some 16% of university researchers are from non-UK EU states. If these EU nationals were to leave, basic science research would be hit harder than other disciplines. Statistics sent to the parliamentary inquiry by the UK Department for Education show that 23% of academic staff in biology, mathematics and physics are EU nationals.

Credit: Source: HESA

Status anxiety

EU citizens gain permanent residency rights in the United Kingdom if they have lived there for five years. In the past year, the number of EU nationals applying for cards to prove their residency rights has tripled, according to media reports. But many academics have not lived in the United Kingdom long enough to qualify for permanent residency. At Imperial College London, for example, only 30% of non-UK EU staff are currently eligible to apply for the cards.

The university told the House of Commons inquiry committee that it has had “a few examples of scholars choosing not to join Imperial citing the referendum result as a factor”.

Salary woes

Another route for people to remain in the United Kingdom is to obtain a visa: the ‘Tier 2’ visa designated for skilled workers. But the Russell Group — a set of 24 leading research universities — says that 5,880 EU staff, or around 26% of those institutions’ total workforce, earn less than £30,000 (US$38,000). That salary will be the cut-off for a Tier 2 visa from April 2017.

And if non-UK staff do need skilled-worker visas, they’ll have to find more money to pay for the cost of obtaining a visa. The University of Cambridge told the inquiry that visa costs for its non-UK EU staff would amount to some £1.25 million per year.

The Scottish quarter

Scotland could be particularly at risk from staff problems. Its universities employ 4,595 EU nationals, who make up 17% of academic staff, and an even higher proportion (almost 25%) of research-only staff, according to Universities Scotland.