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Universities and Brexit: Past, Present and Future

  • 11 July 2020

HEPI’s Director, Nick Hillman, has written about ‘Universities and Brexit: past, present and future‘ for today’s Long Read from ‘The UK in a Changing Europe’.

The piece argues:

  1. Standing (largely) aside in the Scottish referendum and then getting stuck in on one side of the Brexit referendum were both defensible decisions yet, together, they made universities look unwilling to defend the union of which much of the political left were sceptical and keen to defend another union of which much of the political right were sceptical. This put them unambiguously on one side of the political chasm that has defined British society since 2016.
  2. The benefits of EU membership for research, student exchange and student recruitment are real but the scale has often been exaggerated while the positive bigger picture has sometimes become lost. While leaving the EU may not mean dropping down a cliff, small cumulative changes could add up to a great deal.
  3. Although many individual institutions believe they can excel internationally, nationally and locally, this is likely to be more difficult in any new austerity to come. Options for the future include further hierarchy or shifting to more ‘comprehensive’ universities but also separate institutions working more closely together, including through federations.

The paper also notes the true significance of Tony Blair’s 50% target for the participation of young people in higher education was not the continuing expansion it heralded but that 50% is regarded as the point at which a system shifts from ‘mass’ to ‘universal’. At this point, more people come to have a stake in higher education … but also some may become keen to pull the ladder up.

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