Brexit: the storm is coming… here’s how to prepare

Smita Jamdar from Shakespeare Martineau says there are challenges to come but the HE sector is not resistant to change

Many in the higher education (HE) sector are feeling a little shell-shocked post-referendum. For many in this sector, the result was surprising and more than a little worrying. The future for universities is undoubtedly more uncertain with this sea change potentially impacting on universities’ ability to recruit EU students and staff, as well as the potential funding gap which could be created.

However, amidst all the gloom and trepidation it is worth remembering that the HE sector is not resistant to change and in the past has responded positively and proactively to the many changes the UK government has thrown at it – notably the introduction of tuition fees and the attempt to create a competitive HE market for students.

Although it may not feel like it, we are currently in a relatively calm period before the storm. Once the Article 50 button is pushed (and there is no clarity at all when that might be) there will follow a hectic two years of renegotiation. What universities need to be doing now is planning ahead as much as possible to ensure they are in a strong position post-Brexit and talent and funding potential isn’t adversely affected.

Assuming protections for EU students are removed as we untangle ourselves from the Union, their fees will have to rise to match other overseas students

Firstly, there hangs a question mark over EU student fees. Assuming protections for EU students are removed as we untangle ourselves from the Union, their fees will have to rise to match other overseas students and they will no longer be entitled to the student support which they currently benefit from. If a new deal is not negotiated, universities could potentially face discrimination claims if they offer EU students cheaper fees than other overseas students.

This is very likely to result in a significant dip in EU students choosing British universities – impacting on the sector’s bottom line but also academically and culturally.

However, there is a potential way to deal with this problem, and although it is untested, it would certainly be worth universities thinking about this approach. Legally, if a decision to offer students lower fees (equivalent to the £9,000 currently paid by British nationals) is based on the student’s residency in the EU, rather than their status as an EU national, it may be permissible under discrimination law if the institution can justify the decision with a clear business need.

Universities therefore need to start thinking carefully about whether there is a strategic justification to continue to offer EU students the same fees as UK students. This “Europe Strategy” must give compelling reasons which go beyond the financial benefits of recruiting EU students. For example, the strong research connections with European institutions which benefit the university’s academic output, the cultural benefits of having a more diverse “European” student body, or the fact that maintaining  close relations with our nearest neighbours is vital from both an economic and a “soft diplomacy” perspective

As I say, the residency-based approach has not been tested before, but would certainly be a worthwhile exercise to help universities identify some solid reasons why EU students, and a strong European connection overall, is very important.

It is likely that a great number of university staff who have come from elsewhere in the EU to work in the UK will be feeling nervous and unsure of their future. As their employer, it is important to reassure staff as much as possible in this uncertain time that you will do everything possible to retain them. A skills gap in the sector is a real risk which universities must be alive to. Universities can also support EU nationals who have been in the UK for five years to apply for residency. This should help ease some worries.

It is also important for universities to work together to lobby the government. Historically, we have not always seen a cohesive approach from the sector, with the mission groups tending to campaign separately, in-line with their own agendas. This fragmented approach, taken together with the fact that, unlike the US, the UK sector does not have a strong tradition of lobbying government, has meant that the sector voice has not been as loud as it might otherwise have been. 

Historically, we have not always seen a cohesive approach from the sector, with the mission groups tending to campaign separately, in-line with their own agendas

It is therefore likely that HE will be relatively low on the government’s set of priorities when negotiating new European deals. The best way to ensure that the needs of our HE institutions are not overlooked in the new landscape may well be for all institutions to work together collaboratively.

Arguably, the referendum also exposed some deeper issues affecting universities – namely around the effectiveness of the channels of communication HE institutions have with their local communities. Information about the great research and other work universities do which benefit so many people does not seem to have been disseminated to the local populations that voted for Brexit, at least not in a way that made them think differently. Reconnecting with communities and focusing on social equality should help foster more of an understanding and general support for the work universities do, and mean that communities fight for their universities in the way they fight for schools and hospitals.  It is possible that a focus on improving these wider relationships before the referendum might have made the pro European message from HE better supported,  although of course it’s impossible to say for sure how much of a difference it would have made.

There are certainly some lessons the HE sector can learn from the referendum result. There must be greater collaboration to ensure a strong HE voice is heard by government once negotiations begin. Barriers also need to continue to be broken down to improve social equality and interaction with wider communities. There are some practical and achievable steps which universities can take to ensure they’re in a strong position, whichever way negotiations go. As I mentioned at the start, universities have proven themselves to be resilient and I am sure the sector will successfully adapt to this change, as it has the many others which have gone before it.

Smita Jamdar is Partner & Head of Education at Shakespeare Martineau LLP






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