Universities are more prepared for a Brexit fallout than they might think

Regional networks and corporate collaborations built up over decades will help universities weather the Brexit storm, say Alex de Ruyter and Vangelis Tsiligiris

March 16, 2019
Boat on a stormy sea

Various commentators, ourselves included, have explored all possible scenarios for Brexit’s impact on higher education, ranging from the naive – “no impact/business as usual” – to the catastrophic. 

But our view remains that Brexit, like any major political and economic event, creates a number of challenges as well as opportunities for universities and their partners and that some of the strengths that the UK HE sector has developed in the past 20 years can be utilised to overcome these post-Brexit challenges and create the opportunities.

Regional networks as catalysts of international research collaboration 

The effortless access to major European Union funding programmes that UK universities have had over the years has boosted the volume and quality of their research activity. International research collaboration as a percentage of total research activity has increased dramatically over the past 20 years, from 24.3 per cent in 1996 to 55.8 per cent in 2018. Since 2013, the UK has surpassed Germany as the country with the highest percentage of international collaboration activity in the (current) EU-28 area. Furthermore, in 2018 the UK was second in the world – just marginally behind Australia. 

The benefits that links to EU institutions and funding bring are illustrated by the fact that three out of the top five countries for research collaboration with UK HEIs are in the EU. In addition, 13 out of the 20 top countries for international research collaboration are in the EU and European Economic Area regions. 

What is even more important about the value of international collaboration for UK institutions is the quality and impact of outputs. According to Scopus, the international collaboration impact of research outputs was higher than 1 (indicating that the publications have been cited more than would be expected based on the world average for similar publications) and substantially higher than that of national collaboration outputs. This applies to all nine regions of the UK: the overall score for the UK is 1.22 for international collaborations and 0.96 for national collaborations. 

The question that arises here is how UK HEIs could sustain these international research collaborative activities with their EU/EEA counterparts in a post-Brexit environment. We believe that local networks, such as the Midlands Enterprise Universities (MEU) – a consortium of six institutions: Birmingham City, Coventry and Nottingham Trent University and the universities of Lincoln, Derby and Wolverhampton – that are set up to help drive productivity and growth, could act as catalysts for maintaining and generating collaborative activity among UK and European universities. Also, regional networks can utilise EU regional programmes, which often target non-EU and EEA countries, and pursue research activities in the context of regional economic development and knowledge transfer. 

Academic-corporate collaboration as a driver of international student mobility

A substantial part of the public debate about the impact of Brexit on the UK HE sector concentrates on the future trajectory of EU student mobility. Under the assumption that EU students will have to pay higher fees, many anticipate that UK HEIs will experience a significant decline in the number of EU students. However, this is a rather simplistic view, especially when taking into account how different factors affect students’ decision process for selecting their study destination. 

Several major studies of international student mobility suggest that employment prospects are the motivators for mobile students. One of the key drivers of employability of graduates is the existence of links between universities and business at local, regional, national and international levels. Over the past 20 years, UK HEIs have developed a strong record of academic-corporate collaboration. As data from Scopus SciVal indicates, UK HEIs have significantly improved their academic-corporate collaboration. Among other major destination countries of international students, the UK is second, marginally below Germany, in terms of academic-corporate collaboration. 

Specifically, expanding and communicating the opportunities available to students for gaining work experience as part of universities’ undergraduate or postgraduate programme could be a very effective way to overcome the negative expectations around fees and Brexit. Additionally, UK HEIs can continue to explore and extend the use of experiential learning components to create a value-added learning experience for students. 

Coming together to rise to the challenge of Brexit 

Still, it is more important than ever for HEIs to band together to build economies of scale and scope and create collaborations that generate a value-added student experience. 

The Midlands traditionally has relied on manufacturing to generate regional prosperity and Brexit highlights the fragile nature of the dependence on automotive and aerospace in particular. However, regional HEI networks such as the MEU have an important role to play in maintaining regional competitiveness after Brexit (and indeed have been key in boosting regional manufacturing competitiveness). Partners can build on their strengths and come together to offer innovative new degrees and modes of study that should build appeal against more established rivals.

In doing this, varying modes of delivery such as degree apprenticeships, internships/traineeships, distance learning, experiential learning, blended learning and part-time study in the pursuit of lifelong education all have a role to play. But above all, it means building on our excellent collaboration with industry and fostering innovative (disruptive even) new interdisciplinary approaches to tackle the more significant challenges ahead, be they automation, climate change or the challenge of an ageing population. 

Some industries are adopting a response to Brexit that could best be summarised as, “hope for the best, prepare for the worst”. By contrast, we would argue instead that Brexit should serve as a catalyst for HEIs to “plan for the best, hope for the unthinkable”.

Alex de Ruyter is professor and director of the Centre for Brexit Studies at Birmingham City University. Vangelis Tsiligiris is principal lecturer in finance at Nottingham Trent University

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