The dust has finally settled following the June referendum and the UK seems to be getting to grips with the practicalities of Brexit. While markets have found balance again and, in some cases, returned to pre-referendum levels, the higher education sector is still coming to terms with what impact a post-Brexit Britain, and its relationship with the European Union, will have. Indeed, the only thing certain at this point is that there will be change and universities will need to adjust.
One of the central concerns for universities is access to European funds. The sector is heavily reliant on EU money – both in terms of funding and overseas students – and there has been no firm commitment as to whether Government will plug the gap, or if it will expect universities to fend for themselves in finding new funding sources.
This European money has driven incredible innovation in the sciences over the past 20 years, with the UK long leading the way in research. Not only are universities reliant on EU funding to support these projects, but UK researchers take part in a significant number of collaborations with their EU counterparts.
The sector is heavily reliant on EU money – both in terms of funding and overseas students
Potential changes to EU funding set-ups are already affecting universities. Some Vice-Chancellors were told within days of the referendum result not to apply for funding, particularly joint funding opportunities with EU institutions. Not having access to EU funds and collaborative working opportunities means these strides in innovation are likely to suffer for the first time in a generation.
It’s not just research departments that are subject to uncertainty – the popular Erasmus programme, which has been funding students to study abroad for the last 30 years, is also under threat. In recent weeks this has hit the national news headlines, with David Davis facing pressure to find a solution.
The issue of EU student status is also a worrying unknown. From 2017 onwards there is no clarity on whether EU students will become categorised as ‘international students’ who pay significantly increased tuition fees, sometimes as much as double the current EU rate. Factor in living expenses on top of this, and contrast it with other countries like Germany – already a major competitor for the UK – where they would pay no tuition fees at all, and the UK becomes a significantly less attractive option.
A reduction in the number of overseas students should not only be a cause for concern to the universities themselves, but to the whole country. There are few more diverse places than a University campus. Spend time at one and you are likely to meet people from all over the world studying, teaching and carrying out ground-breaking research. Overseas students bring huge cultural and financial benefits – contributing £7billion to the economy each year. Their impact is felt right across the UK, often in areas of traditional under-investment by the government, and their loss would be significant.
The UK currently trades on its associated pedigree, historical significance and the glow of Oxbridge
Continuing to thrive
With such uncertainty, it is vital for the sector to find new solutions – and fast. Universities need to look carefully at the UK’s differentiators within the marketplace, and consider whether these are strong enough to maintain its position as a higher education world leader.
The UK currently trades on its associated pedigree, historical significance and the glow of Oxbridge. However, as funding cuts affect opportunities and raises fees, there will come a point where parents of overseas students simply do the maths, look at the prospects and weigh up whether a UK education is truly worth it. Ensuring the retention of top quality talent in our universities – a potential challenge in the new order – may well prove crucial in convincing them.
The most powerful action universities can now take is to put aside their structural differences and call for clarity. Vice-Chancellors must unite to develop a new role for their institutions in pushing the UK forward on the world stage, acting as the primary link for global growth when Article 50 is triggered. Simply put, UK universities need to collaborate and present themselves as a unified, major voice of the UK in order to continue to thrive in the global education arena.
Gin Bhandal is a Consultant in Berwick Partners’ Education Practice. He leads on professional services appointments ranging from corporate functional areas through to International at Director and Head of level. Gin has delivered leadership roles for both Russell Group and modern institutions, appointing candidates from within and outside of the sector.