Earlier this week, the Liberal Democrats launched a new piece of research – against Brexit, of course. The headline and key findings of their press release were stark:

11,000 academics quit UK in three years in “Brexit brain drain”

  • Almost 11,000 EU academics quit UK in three years since Brexit
  • Over 4,000 EU academics have left in 2018/19, up 31% compared to 2015/16
  • Lib Dems warn of “Brexit brain drain”

Almost 11,000 EU academics have quit the UK in the three years since the Brexit vote, research by the Liberal Democrats has revealed.

The analysis, based on Freedom of Information responses from 81 universities, shows that 4,014 EU academics have left UK universities in 2018/19. This is a 31% increase on the 3,051 EU academics who quit in 2015/16, the academic year before the Brexit vote…

Layla Moran, the Lib Dem would-be Education Secretary, was damning in the enclosed quote:

“It is a deeply concerning that Brexit has already driven so many talented academics to abandon the UK. Our universities are being threatened by a Brexit brain drain, exacerbated by Boris Johnson’s reckless promise to crash us out of the EU by 2020 no matter the cost. This is sadly not surprising given the Tory party has adopted the xenophobic rhetoric of Nigel Farage, making our colleagues, friends and family from the EU feel unwelcome.”

The Guardian took up the story. ‘Figures reveal Brexit threat as 11,000 EU academics leave UK’, headlined the New European. The Lib Dems’ national Twitter account – with over 300,000 followers – amplified the coverage, declaring ‘11,000 EU academics have left the UK since 2016, driven out by Johnson’s reckless pursuit of Brexit.’ The Lib Dem press office, frontbenchers like Tom Brake, and even left-wing celebrities like David Schneider shared the news.

All told, a fairly decent hit: data-based research, national press coverage, social media amplification… nothing new.

Except for one inconvenient fact: the story is not true.

My reason for asserting this is founded in an incontrovertible source: the Lib Dems’ own data tables, which they linked to in their press release, and which I’ve posted online here.

Here’s the issue. What are the Lib Dems claiming? “Almost 11,000 EU academics have quit the UK in the three years since the Brexit vote”. What is their proof? “Freedom of Information responses from 81 universities”.

What exactly did those FOI requests ask for? I’ve checked this in the Lib Dem data, and with one of the universities they gathered data from, and it’s simple: how many non-UK EU academics left posts at each university in each of the years 2014/15 to 2018/19, and how many non-UK EU staff did each university employ in each of those years.

Hang on a second.

So these numbers are for people leaving their university jobs. There’s no data at all on where they went when they did so. Indeed, the Lib Dems do not seem to have asked for any destination data. This means these figures do not show how many ‘EU academics have quit the UK’ at all. They show how many EU academics have left jobs at UK universities – including those who, for example, left one UK university job to go to another UK university job.

Let me repeat that. Somebody who resigned a lecturer job at Oxford Brookes University to take up a new lecturer job at Oxford University would be counted by the Lib Dems as having left the country, when in fact they hadn’t even left their city.

The headline figure is a total falsehood, with no foundation in fact or research whatsoever.

Aha, but isn’t it possible some of these 11,000 people weren’t changing jobs within the UK but really were leaving the country? Of course it is. No doubt some of them did. We don’t know how many, because the Lib Dems didn’t ask that question.

What we do know, however, is that there is no sign of “Our universities are being threatened by a Brexit brain drain [because]…the Tory party has adopted the xenophobic rhetoric of Nigel Farage, making our colleagues, friends and family from the EU feel unwelcome.” The reason we know this is also because of the Lib Dems’ own data.

Remember the second part of their FOI research: how many non-UK EU staff did each university employ in each of those years? Well, they got an answer, and helpfully published it in the second tab of the spreadsheet they attached to their press release.

Oddly, the findings in that section were not explicitly cited in the press release about the supposed “brain drain”. That’s rather more understandable when you look at the numbers, because the Lib Dem research discovered good news: the total number of non-UK EU academics working at these 81 universities increased from the year before the referendum – from 16,844 in 2015/16 up to 17,889 in 2018/19.

That’s a six per cent rise: a funny sort of “brain drain”.

Of course, we know one reason for it: many of the 11,000 academics who were supposedly “driven…to abandon the UK” were just still here, having moved jobs. The net increase shows that whatever the currently unknown number of genuine departees may have been, they were more than replaced by new arrivals.

It’s hard to see how the Liberal Democrats could have failed to know that this story was bogus when they promoted it. Their researchers wrote and submitted all those FOIs, and gathered and analysed the resulting data, so would have known the facts of what they were and were not studying. I can’t fathom how anyone could accidentally make the huge leap from asking how many employees left an institution to assuming that all those people left the country. 

What’s more, their own data – in their own published spreadsheet – contained a pretty massive clue that this headline claim was false. They asked the question about total number of EU employees presumably in the hope that it would show a decline, which would add to their story. When it showed an increase, didn’t they think “hang on, how’s that if 11,000 have left?” Even if that wouldn’t lead you to question the headline figure, it definitely ought to have vetoed the “brain drain” claim – if they believed the number of 11,000 academics leaving the UK was true, then the total employee numbers would have implied over 12,000 new EU academics coming to the UK since the referendum, the opposite of a brain drain.

Even had all those implausible mistakes been made, a simple signoff process would surely detect them. And even if that didn’t happen, surely a national newspaper ought to look at the facts of a claim, and its published data, before reporting it as fact? The Guardian even made reference to the Higher Education Statistics Agency having found rising numbers through to 2017/18, but that doesn’t seem to have drawn attention to the fundamental issue with the story itself.

I have put these questions to the Liberal Democrat press office. On the phone, they did not dispute my analysis. I sent them a series of questions this morning, including a request for comment by 1pm today. They have not yet replied.

36 comments for: Exclusive: The Liberal Democrats’ untrue claims about a “Brexit brain drain” at British universities

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