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Three years on, we still need to build a better explanation of why EU membership is the best way to ensure UK universities are open to the rest of the world

  • 5 April 2019

On Wednesday, I went off to the UCL Institute of Education for the Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE)’s excellent Conference, in particular to participate in a panel on Brexit and higher education.

The instructions had asked us ‘to steer away from the political manoeuvring’, but unsurprisingly that proved impossible. After all, just since 2014, we have had five ministers for universities, four secretaries of state for education, three types of government, two elections and – so far – just one referendum.

I tried to make three points: one historical; one current; one future-looking.

The backward-looking point, from which we might now learn, was that the university sector fought the last referendum in the wrong way. As I have said before, in my opinion the campaign was:

  • too inward-looking, when the overwhelming majority of people on university campuses were firmly determined to vote Remain anyway;
  • too one-sided – debates on campuses with no Leave speakers left a nice warm glow but also a false impression about wider opinion in the country and in the communities in which each university resides; and
  • too focused on money, rather than the uses of the money, such as curing horrible diseases, and the cross-national partnerships that the money helped trigger.

All three points played into the hands of the Leave campaign as they allowed universities to seem elitist, out-of-touch and in it for themselves. A different strategy would not have overturned the result but it might have made a dent in it.

Universities have since gone back to being relatively quiet in terms of the public debate on European issues. But we may need to learn from past errors if we want to really engage with the national conversation that shows no sign of quietening down.

I wrote on the HEPI blog 18 months ago that, if the higher education sector thinks another referendum is possible (as I do), then it should consider campaigning for one. Who knows if that would have made any difference, but the idea of a second vote got more votes in the House of Commons than any other option in the recent indicative votes so it got close to, but not over, the line.

My second point was that it remains likely that, if Brexit occurs, then it will mean a big drop off in students coming to the UK from the EU, making our university campuses less diverse, less interesting and less global in outlook – and reducing the UK’s influence in the world. Detailed modelling undertaken for HEPI and Kaplan by London Economics and published back in 2017 suggests, if EU students are no longer entitled to lower fees nor tuition fee loans, there could be a drop-off of 57%.

The picture is not so bad for institutions’ bottom lines or even their net student numbers because everyone who does come here to study will be paying the full international fees and because of the reduction in the value of the pound, which makes us cheaper relative to our main competitors.

But the true picture will be determined, in part, by the Government’s willingness (or otherwise) to welcome people from other countries who are interested in coming to study here. In this context, the new Educational Exports Strategy, is simultaneously welcome but disappointing.

The targets are less ambitious than before. The new visas rules are such tiny tweaks that they are almost invisible to people abroad, who know the bigger offers available elsewhere, and leave us uncompetitive. Meanwhile students remain in the overall target to reduce net inward migration.

With Kaplan and London Economics, we have just published a report on the enormous financial contributions made by the small proportion of international students who remain in the UK to work as well as the costs to the UK of the post-study work restrictions. This gives a sense of what we are missing out on and why, as the CGHE have shown, we are now being overtaken by Australia as a destination of choice.

My third and final point was: it is hard to see any post-Brexit scenario in which Britain thrives that does not have universities at its heart. To take one example, were it to become harder for employers to recruit highly-skilled labour from abroad – for both supply and demand reasons – it would become doubly important to raise the skills of those already in the country.

We also mustn’t forget our core strengths – for example, no other EU country currently has such a strong multi-disciplinary university research programme – even if their continuation cannot be taken for granted.

It is not inevitable that Brexit is a disaster for higher education but, as Janen Ganesh, the columnist in the Financial Times, noted some time ago, at the very least ‘Britain should worry about the aggregation of marginal losses.’ A tweak here, a change there, a drop in funding on something else and, to coin a phrase, you could soon be talking real money.

To take one tiny but useful illustrative example, I recently spoke to the Principal of a leading conservatoire who told me that different countries tend to specialise and excel at playing different musical instruments – Italy and the bassoon, for instance. So putting together a truly world-class orchestra tends to be an international endeavour, with participants from many countries. Brexit won’t stop that but it does potentially make it a whole lot more complicated for us compared to others.

The only applause in the whole session came for a question from a German citizen, who essentially asked what on earth we are doing as a nation. My hopeful answer, which received a chillier response, was that – while the current political mess may be an embarrassment – perhaps every nation sometimes needs to have big conversations about their position in the world. After the event, it may come to look cathartic, even it doesn’t feel like that at the time.

I also pointed out that the big political EU institutions are not as popular as many people working in higher education sometimes like to assume and that this is true across much of Europe (see the Eurobarometer), not just in the UK. It helps no one to pretend otherwise.

Moreover, the concept of higher education as an international community of scholars that ignores boundaries predates the EU (as well as the modern European nation state): it is not necessarily or wholly dependent upon it.

So …

… if the future success of UK higher education depends upon the country continuing to play a full role within the EU, as many people believe, and …

… if the current parliamentary deadlock and the prospect of a second referendum makes that outcome possible …

… then we probably still need to see the development of a clearer and more resonant explanation of why the benefits of international co-operation and widening horizons that are encapsulated in higher education are best delivered through full membership of the big EU institutions rather than in other ways.

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