Brexit will harm universities outside the Russell Group – and this matters enormously

Brexit will exacerbate the inequalities that already exist in UK higher education, argue Helen De Cruz and Chon Tejedor 

August 30, 2019
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The coverage of Brexit’s impact on UK higher education has focused mostly on prestigious Russell Group institutions and the thousands of European academics who have left these universities or their postgraduate European Union enrolments that have fallen.

But what about the impact on post-92 universities and the EU academics working there?

Post-92 universities do a great job of “adding value” by bringing up to par the academic skills of students from under-resourced and often government-neglected state schools. The fact that concerns about the impact of Brexit focus mostly on Russell Group institutions exemplifies part of what is wrong with UK academia: it is deeply elitist and sets certain groups up to fail.

We write as two EU citizens who worked for post-92 universities but decided, following the 2016 EU referendum, to leave the UK and move to academic posts abroad.

We are Helen De Cruz, a Belgian citizen, who is leaving her senior lecturer position at Oxford Brookes University to take up the Danforth Chair in the Humanities at Saint Louis University, Missouri; and Chon Tejedor, a Spanish citizen, who was senior lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire and is now professor of philosophy at the University of Valencia in Spain.

For both of us, Brexit was the final straw. It compelled us to take a long, hard look at UK academia and the desirability of working in its ever worsening, governmentally driven environment.

Take, for example, the research excellence framework, which rewards institutions financially for the quality of their research output. Because outputs submitted to the REF are not anonymised, assessors can – and do – take into consideration institutional prestige. One study found that a publication written by someone from a Russell Group university obtains a significantly higher REF score compared with an equally well-cited work submitted by someone from a post-92 institution.

Moreover, to game their REF scores, wealthier institutions regularly award fractional (.2 FTE) appointments to prestigious professors whose outputs count in full towards their REF submissions even though these academics only spend a few weeks or months on campus.

Faced with this, smaller institutions with few full-time faculty members and fewer resources are often forced to opt out of the REF altogether. But opting out of the REF means that staff members lose research allocations in their work plan. Unsurprisingly, then, staff at poorer-resourced post-92 universities find themselves increasingly overstretched on contracts with heavy teaching and admin loads, and with no time for research.

One could understandably presume then that those post-92 universities, which are “teaching focused”, should be well placed to shine in the teaching excellence framework.

But even here, the deck is stacked against post-92 institutions. Consider for instance the government’s decision, late in the process, to link TEF scores to graduate employment. However, studies show that biases in the labour market negatively impact the job prospects of black and minority ethnic graduates, as well as those of women and religious minorities, after graduation. Rather than deciding TEF ratings purely on teaching quality, the inclusion of short-term graduate employment data disproportionately penalises post-92 universities, which are typically those with the most diverse student bodies – even though they often lead in terms of teaching quality and innovation.

Lifting the cap on student numbers in 2012 has also favoured wealthier institutions, to the detriment of post-92 universities. The fierce “free market” economy of higher education that emerged has institutionalised a situation where these universities get more students and thus more money from the government (even for equivalent outputs), can hire more staff and offer a wider range of modules.

The remaining universities have to resort to unconditional offers and stop-gap fixes to maintain student intake. To add to this, the Augar review’s proposal to lower tuition fees would squeeze all but the wealthiest students’ finances and paints a bleak picture for post-92 institutions. It would significantly impede their continued widening of access to and participation in higher education.

As EU citizens sympathetic to the aims of post-92 universities, we have watched with consternation as our institutions have struggled to retain staff in the face of what seem like hostile policies from a government that has used us as bargaining chips on the Brexit negotiating table and which has deprived us of our rights to continue living here.

While our institutions have regularly emailed us assurances that we are valued members of staff, the UK government has given very different signals.

With no-deal now on the cards, the reasons to stay have all but vanished.

Ultimately, Brexit brings into sharp focus the enduring problems of UK higher education policies, which are geared towards the wealthy, the prestigious and those already advantaged through private education. The layoffs at universities like Coventry – which recently closed two research centres in its Faculty of Health and Life Sciences – make us think that post-92 institutions will be more adversely affected than Russell Group universities by Brexit.

Whether its electorate has noticed or not, the UK is now on course to return to an education offer that is available to the privileged few alone. Now in our new posts abroad, we count ourselves lucky not to have to witnessed first-hand the continued demolition of a university system that has for years been such a beacon of light and of which we have been so very proud.

Helen De Cruz is Danforth Chair in the Humanities at Saint Louis University and Chon Tejedor is professor of philosophy at the University of Valencia

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Reader's comments (1)

Best wishes for your new positions. Unfortunately a "brain drain" will be required in order to convince Government - and university managers - that the problems of UK academia are genuine. Back in the '80s there was lots of talk of a brain drain, but until recently that problem seemed to have subsided.

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