UK universities must get better at lobbying, and here’s why

David Boddy wants to see British universities doing more to demonstrate the value of UK education

September 2, 2016
Houses of Parliament, Westminster
Source: iStock

We all have a past. Before I got into the business of international student recruitment for UK universities and top boarding schools, mine included running one of Europe’s leading lobbying companies and working as political press secretary to Margaret Thatcher.

Some would say that it was quite good training for helping to meet the wider challenges that our higher education sector now faces.

The Cabinet has tucked away its sun cream and is now getting down to the business of sorting out Brexit. Those of us who think it is a disaster have to throw away our sour grapes and get down to making the most of what the democratic process has given us. Since June, I have been surprised at the lack of coherent response from our universities.

If they had come to me during my lobbying days I would have asked them: 

  • How closely have you studied the Australian points-based immigration system and have you looked at how we can devise our own imaginative form of it to put serious, well-meaning undergraduate and postgraduate students high up on the list of acceptable entrants?
  • Can you provide an updated economic cost-benefit analysis from a reputable firm of economists – one that the new Treasury team will listen to? The Treasury matters a great deal in these negotiations.
  • Have you opened conversations with the various thinktanks to get them talking about the economic, social and diplomatic benefits that will arise for a free and independent Britain post Brexit?
  • Have you identified existing MPs with serious university interests in their constituencies who can persuade the Education Select Committee, the International Trade Select Committee and the Brexit Select Committee to examine and report on the benefits to the UK of both European and international students attending our schools and universities. At least one of these groups – if not each one – should be keen to put this high on their agendas.
  • Have you trawled your alumni to find those former international or European students who have gone on to manage top companies, win a Nobel prize, run friendly governments and be the real-time ambassadors for the brilliance of British education? These are powerful voices, and the UK government needs to hear from them. If it doesn’t, there may be precious few such ambassadors in the future.

To lobby means consistently to work “alongside” government – not directly in opposition – to help shape, bend, amend and, ultimately, deliver policies that are acceptable both to the government and to your own interests. It is financially quite costly to undertake such lobbying – and very time-consuming. But it is worth it.

In my experience, the best lobbying takes place when companies and institutions that compete on a daily basis put their suspicions aside and work together for something much greater than themselves. Whichever part of the UK education sector we work in, we are all going to be the poorer if European and international students do not feel welcome here.

The Brexiteers want Britain to be open to the world. But you can’t be open if you keep out of the country the best minds and the most brilliant talent the world has to offer. We must become, in post-Brexit Britain, a powerful magnet for these students. 

We have got so much ammunition to use in this imminent battle – much more than just the impact of Brexit on our research budgets and projects.  

I so hope that we start deploying it. And soon.

David Boddy is head of schools partnerships at SI-UK Education Council, which helps international students to apply to UK universities.

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