Isolated British Isles or a new global Britain?

Miranda Thomas, assistant director external affairs, Universities UK International, discusses the International Higher Education Forum, taking place on the heels of Brexit

The UK referendum and a two-year emotional rollercoaster of Brexit negotiations has led to much editorial musing on the UK’s place in the world. 

From accusations of rolling up the drawbridge to our ‘damp little island’ through to assertions that Brexit will lead to greater international trade and engagement, pundits have explored every possible cause and potential effect.

At a critical moment in the UK’s international relations, it’s worth considering the role universities can play in establishing new networks and influence around the world.

From development to diplomacy and trade, there are countless examples of the power of education as a tool to engage communities and improve lives. 


When the Department for International Development (DFID) published its Education Strategy in February last year, it included key lines around the importance of higher education to international development.

It stated that “higher education can play a crucial role in developing the highly skilled people that societies need to lift themselves out of poverty”. DFID’s support in this area will include “support to improve the quality of higher education within developing countries”.

The most visible example of this support to date is SPHEIR, a portfolio of nine partnerships that focus on systemic and systems-level change in higher education systems in targeted countries in the developing world.

Seven UK universities are involved in the programme which Universities UK International (UUKi), in partnership with the British Council and PwC, delivers on behalf of DFID.

SPHEIR projects include the Partnership for Digital Learning and Increased Access (PADILEIA) through which a group including Kings College London and FutureLearn produce and deliver blended higher education programmes to Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon and to local Jordanian and Lebanese students (


The soft power benefits of the UK’s universities have long been recognised. A 2015 report by HEPI showed that 55 world leaders from 51 countries had studied in the UK. Having heads of state spend part of their most formative years learning about – and being part of – UK culture highlights how the UK’s higher education sector is a long-term asset, not just locally and nationally but also internationally.

The UK came out top in the 2018 Soft Power 30 – developed by consultancy Portland – due to its “incredibly well-balanced set of soft power assets… Culture, Digital and Education”. However, the authors do go on to warn that “2019 will be a make or break year for the UK’s soft power”, asking “will we see an isolated British Isles or a new global Britain?”


University contributions to UK trade come in a variety of guises including the economic contributions of over 436,000 international students and their visitors, academic research innovations and spin-off companies, and transnational higher education (TNE – UK degree programmes delivered overseas through a variety of models).

For example, UUK research has shown that in 2014–15 the economic activity and employment sustained by international students’ off-campus spending generated £1bn in tax revenues. This is the equivalent to the salaries of 31,700 nurses or 25,000 police officers.

What next?

None of us wants to roll up the drawbridge. For the UK, the global outlook of our universities plays a key role in our country’s contribution to the international community and our position as a global power. For universities, internationalism is part of our identity. But change is afoot, and as a sector we have a responsibility to respond to that.  

Join the discussion at #IHEF19

One of the major themes will be the UK’s place in the world and the impact on universities, when over 400 international higher education professionals come together at Imperial College London on 27th March.

Timed just two days before Brexit, the International Higher Education Forum 2019 will feature:

● Baroness Valerie Amos, director of SOAS University of London and former secretary of state for international development, discussing the UK’s place in the world

● Chris Skidmore, the UK minister of state for universities, science, research and innovation, who will be giving the government’s perspective

● University leaders from Germany, Norway and Spain on the future of UK/EU higher education and research collaboration

● 15 breakout sessions on themes including the ethics of internationalisation, partnerships and the art of the graceful exit, as well as international student mental health

● Great networking opportunities including a drinks reception and breakfast

For more information and tickets, go to the #IHEF19 website.

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