How should the UK position itself in the new geopolitics of higher education?

With Brexit, we’re on the precipice of a new world order, but UK universities have first mover advantage if they act fast, says Simon Marginson

January 30, 2020
Sprinters on starting blocks at sunrise

Tomorrow evening, a new world order begins. The UK’s position will fundamentally change, touching identity, agenda, mission, alliances and strategy.

We don’t know what the difference will be – what a strange thing this is. We normally manage our future with all the due diligence that we can muster. The situation is so strange that some will talk of it as “business as usual” but no longer embedded in Europe. That is not “usual”. It is impossible to think of another time when a great change was coming and we did not know what it was.

It is alarming, but it is also exciting. When path dependency falls away, there is a unique moment of freedom before new patterns are set; the possibilities are genuinely open. There is a large first mover advantage, open to every individual institution in the sector, although not all the first moves will stick, putting much pressure on institutional leaders.

But what then of Europe? For Britain, Europe has always been seen as a choice. For British higher education, it has long been a necessity. Research collaboration data show that there are 21 countries where UK researchers collaborate with above the expected level of intensity – 17 of those countries are in Europe. The others are anglophone (Australia, South Africa, New Zealand) and Chile. Notably, Canada and the US are not on the list.

For many years, we have selected staff and doctoral students from Europe-wide talent pools, and what a boon it has been. Analysis of the global science system by Caroline Wagner at Ohio State University and colleagues shows that UK science is at the global centre, alongside the US. Our position is cemented by our networked collaborations in Europe.

Leading in Europe has sustained our global role. While in two-thirds of countries, the global science system tends to shape the patterns of national research, in the UK, research at national level tends more to shape the global system. This is the ideal strategic position – autonomous, with a strong identity, yet thoroughly engaged.

Will it be the same in future? We will retain the strongest connections to Europe that we can, but it will not be the same. The incentives won’t be there, on either side.

So what more will UK higher education do? Because we will need to do more and there are many institutions, and some governments, that want to work with British universities.

The Commonwealth is not the magic solution. There won’t be a post-post-imperial Britain. India is an increasingly important country and will be an ally, but it is not looking for British leadership. Latin America and Central Asia will become more strategic, but not a substitute for embeddedness in Europe.

That leaves us with two cards to play.

The first is global challenges. Since the Stern review on the economics of climate change, the UK has been capable of global leadership on sustainability. In the US, the energy and plastics industries are too strong. This presents an opportunity for the UK to part fill the geopolitical vacuum and, in doing so, to maintain solidarity in Europe. This plan brings forward British science. It is not uncontested, but it sustains stronger domestic authority than does US science. Higher education shares with the government an appreciation of the value of science. Here the sector can advance both its global role and its domestic position.

The second card is deepening ties with East Asia, which is an economic and cultural zone larger than Europe and very dynamic. South Korea has 50 million people and brilliant industry research. Japan is still an innovator.

But crucially, there is China. Growing relations with China will be the great puzzle and challenge for the country and for higher education.

The UK is the English-speaking country least engaged in China, including through higher education. UK-China research collaboration intensity is well below US-China and Australia-China levels. With honourable exceptions such as the University of Nottingham Ningbo China and Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, there’s not the same interest or knowledge in the UK.

The problem, of course, is that our sudden strategic need to engage with China is the right idea at the most wrong time for a generation. The US-China stand-off is not surprising. China could not rise forever without American pushback, but the US believed that once China opened it would become more Western in politics as well as economics. It didn’t. American disillusionment took hold, and matters deteriorated quickly. The US universities have not gone all the way with the politicians, but they are patriotic.

This may create openings for UK institutions. But we need to understand that China’s culture is as deep and complex as our own, albeit very different. The key is not that China has a Leninist government, although it has, but rather that the party-state is another in the long line of dynasties – and along with the Han and the Tang is one of the most successful, remaking China and starting to shape the world.

In higher education governance, China uses imperial statecraft. Both advanced devolution combined with central control, and the dual authority system in which the party secretary sits alongside the university president, have imperial antecedents. At the same time, Leninism is a more potent form of dynastic centralisation. It lends itself to micromanagement and political surveillance, which does not play well in academic settings.

The formula of top-down control combined with grass-roots devolution has enabled Chinese universities to function like Western universities most of the time: open to outsiders, highly international and with academic freedom in scientific research, although less in the social sciences and humanities. Now that might be changing. Last year’s alterations to the charters of Fudan and Nanjing universities to remove references to freedom of thought were ominous.

All we can do is engage; to get to know China; to draw lines in the sand when we must; and to watch this space. It is tricky, but to abstain would be the larger error.

But much of our positioning will depend on what the government does. If the UK as a country steers its own path in relation to China, as the decision to allow Huawei to develop a 5G network suggests, that gives the higher education sector room to move. We have a highly centralised polity and a regulated sector. It is fiercely autonomous and independent of the executive, like the judiciary. But the government makes the rules, as the Brexit period has shown.

The lacuna in national strategy after Brexit will persist, although not for long. This provides the sector with an opportunity to make its own rules, take initiatives, define the framework of alliances and build a global position of its own. In doing so, it will help to shape a new national identity.

We should not sit on our hands as we had to do during the long Brexit debate. The game is afoot. Now is the time to make the game. The window will not stay open for long.

Simon Marginson is professor of higher education in the department of education and Linacre College, Oxford.

This is an abridged version of Professor Marginson’s address at the Higher Education Policy Institute/Advance HE House of Commons Breakfast Seminar: “The geo-politics of HE – how should the sector position itself in the new order?” on 30 January 2020.

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Reader's comments (1)

Why do we need to shape a 'new national identity'? It's dreadfully retrogressive and opens a pandaro's box of risks that should be long gone; and I can't say I have ever met a single student who wants it either. One can see how the rediscovery of nationalism sets certain pulses raising - along with convenient myths such as 'only the state can protect rights' and so on. The other alternative is to be sensible and rejoin and improve the EU, with all of its global potential.