Higher education and Brexit

A Q&A with Dame Julia Goodfellow, President of Universities UK and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Kent

Professor Dame Julia Goodfellow will be delivering the morning keynote address at the Higher Education Show, exploring the various implications of Brexit for the sector and what can be done moving forward.

The organisers caught up with Dame Julia to discuss a number of topics including the challenges facing HE institutions in the wake of the referendum result, what can be learned from the student satisfaction results, universities role as drivers of social mobility, and more.

Dame Julia, you are giving the keynote address at the Higher Education Show on the recent referendum result. Can you give us a snapshot on the reaction from HE leadership now a few months has passed since the vote?

Higher education is a highly successful sector in the UK, both in terms of teaching and research, contributing over £70Bn annually to the UK economy, including over £10Bn in export earnings.  We believe that our success is due to the autonomy of our institutions, our international outlook and the strength of our staff and students. Of course, the outcome of the referendum was a shock, especially as the sector strongly supported the Remain side as being in the best interests of HE.  However, we have moved on. We recognise the result.  Our goal now is to support and work with government to help strengthen the nation’s economy and to get the best possible outcome from the negotiations.  We will continue to press, in particular, for a strong outward looking future for the UK.

Earlier this summer we surveyed our registered visitors about their views on various things (full results here). When questioned about the UK’s recent decision to leave the EU, 81% of respondents felt it will have a negative effect for UK universities. What are your thoughts and comments on this – do you agree with the respondents? What do you think should be the HE sector’s next steps?

I can understand in the immediate aftermath of the referendum that feelings were running high. However, all will depend on how we move forward. Universities are already doing so. We are emphasising our commitment to European students.  We are working with European staff to ensure that they have support.

The government itself worked with the Student Loan Company to ensure that those arriving in 2016 were reassured that they had loans for the duration of the course.   They are also encouraging UK businesses and universities to continue to bid for competitive EU funds, such as Horizon 2020 until we formally leave and they have provided an assurance that existing grants will be underwritten, even when specific projects continue beyond the UK’s departure.

As I set out in my speech to the UUK conference on 7th September, we have been clear with government that there is more that needs doing.   Particular priorities are to enhance the UK’s attractiveness as a destination for international staff and students; enhancing support for research collaboration with international partners; and increasing public investment in research and innovation.

Following on from this, more equal economic growth and social mobility have appeared out of the referendum as key priorities for the public sector, what role do you think universities can play in these areas over the coming years?

Universities are at the heart of local economies.  It is especially true in small cities where universities may be the main employer.  I think of Canterbury where the University of Kent and Canterbury Christ Church University together provide around 1 in 6 of local jobs.  East Kent is not a wealthy area and the universities play a substantial economic part, in addition to the cultural, sporting and social contribution they make to their communities. We welcome the government’s intention to involve universities in strengthening the nation’s economy and are keen to work with them on their industrial strategy.  Many small companies – particularly in bioscience or technology – arise as university or even student start-ups.  We are all committed to work within our local enterprise partnerships to support such endeavors.

Social mobility is a key value for all universities.  At Kent, we have worked with local schools for over 20 years to ensure all those that can benefit from a university education are aware of possibilities. We also run an academy school in Medway – Brompton academy. This is now the most popular school in the Medway region.   We are very proud of their achievements. We also have a very active project looking at achievement and are committed to making sure all students who enter our university can benefit to the best of their abilities.

At sector level, Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of UUK, is chairing a review of social mobility and a report containing recommendations for universities to improve social mobility will be published shortly.  Universities have achieved a lot in terms of admissions although there is more to do.  We now need to look to achievement and of course at employment.

Moving to the recent student satisfaction results, there is plenty to be optimistic about, but with headlines that nearly one third of students regretted going to university, how should HE instructions respond to this news?

I think any sector that had the overall outcomes that universities do with the NSS should be rightly proud. However, we are committed to do more and look at areas where satisfaction is lower.

It is important to consider student’s experience at university in a broad context.  Clearly, academic achievements are key and we need to put in more support if students are not flourishing.  However, there are wider benefits from university.  This may be through study or work abroad, work experience, volunteering – or supporting sports or cultural activity provided by the many student union clubs.   We have found that not all students are aware that these wider benefits can add to their CVs and make them more attractive to employers.

It is also worth remembering that experiences and lessons learned at university tend to last a long time. Judgements made at one point may change.

While much will depend on the outcome of forthcoming negotiations, what do you think institutions can do with their research and exchange networks to make them as resilient as possible?

We are pleased that Commissioner Moedas has emphasised that UK institutions are fully entitled to be part of current and new EU partnerships.  Moreover, the government has offered support if we were to leave before 2020.   All this is welcome.

However, it should be remembered that UK universities have bilateral or multilateral links with universities around the world.   Kent has around 400 such links.   We are doubling our efforts to ensure that we are open to collaboration and understand the benefits to all from bringing the ‘brightest and the best brains’ from around the world to tackle global problems.

To hear more contributions from Dame Julia and other key figures in the sector, please register your attendance at the 2016 Higher Education Show for free by clicking here

Image credit: www.kent.ac.uk

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