University of Sunderland’s Vice-Chancellor has added his name to an open letter to government and politicians, warning against the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal.

Sir David Bell is among several high-profile Vice-Chancellors of universities across the country demanding guarantees are put in place over what the letter describes as “one of the biggest threats our universities have ever faced”.

Sir David, who joined the UoS last September, is also Vice-President – England and Northern Ireland – of Universities UK who have collected signatures for the letter.

Speaking about his decision to sign the letter, Sir David said: “While I continue to respect the result of the 2016 referendum, I am deeply concerned about the prospect of our country leaving the EU without a deal. That, I know, is a view shared by many people in the region, whether they voted to stay in or leave the EU.

“The north east of England has five great universities. I do not want anything to jeopardise their position when it comes to the opportunities they provide to students, the great research they carry out and the thousands of people they employ.

“As 2019 begins, we now need our Parliament to agree on a way forward, and quickly.”

The letter, published nationally today, states: “Our 50,000 EU staff and 130,000 EU students, not to mention the 15,000 UK students studying in Europe, are starting the new year facing significant uncertainty about their futures.

“Vital research links will be compromised, from new cancer treatments to technologies combatting climate change.

“The valuable exchange of students, staff and knowledge would be seriously damaged. And we share the concerns of business about the impact of no deal on everything from supply chains to security and travel.

“It is no exaggeration to suggest that this would be an academic, cultural and scientific setback from which it would take decades to recover.”

Other university leaders putting their names to the letter include Professor Andrea Nolan OBE, Vice-Chancellor of Edinburgh Napier University; and Professor Dame Janet Beer, President of Universities UK.

The letter goes on to state: “As a sector which contributes over £21 billion to UK GDP every year and supports 944,000 jobs, it is critical to the national interest, to the economy, communities and wider society, that the UK’s universities thrive post-Brexit.

“To do so, our government must demonstrate the required ambition, put the right measures and guarantees in place, and, crucially, avoid the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal on 29 March.

“As a matter of urgency, we are also seeking confirmation that the government will replace research funding sources from which we may be excluded at the end of March. In particular, we await explicit assurance that if the UK is unable to participate in the European Research Council and Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions funding schemes, which support world-leading breakthroughs, that domestic alternatives will be created with the same level of funding.”

The government is reported to be launching a publicity drive to prepare the public for a possible no-deal Brexit.

The Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, said Whitehall departments and the health regulator would begin publishing guidance on how the public can get ready for potential issues that may arise from a disorderly break from Europe.

The Universities UK letter is signed by the below:

Professor Dame Janet Beer, President, Universities UK and Vice-Chancellor, University of Liverpool

Sir David Bell, Vice-President – England and Northern Ireland, Universities UK and Vice-Chancellor, University of Sunderland

Professor Andrea Nolan OBE, Vice-President – Scotland, Universities UK and Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Edinburgh Napier University

Professor Julie Lydon OBE, Vice-President – Wales, Universities UK and Vice-Chancellor, University of South Wales

Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, Chair, Russell Group and Principal and Vice-Chancellor, University of Glasgow

Professor John Latham, Chair, University Alliance and Vice-Chancellor, Coventry University

Professor Dave Phoenix, Chair, Million Plus and Vice-Chancellor, London South Bank University

Dr David Llewellyn, Chair, GuildHE and Vice-Chancellor, Harper Adams University