Writing just after the Battle of Waterloo, when the UK’s relations with its European neighbours were such as to make Brexit look like a minor lover’s tiff, the English economist David Ricardo first articulated the idea of national comparative advantage.
By specialising in the industry in which it was most efficient, and by being open to trade, Ricardo argued, a nation could increase its own wealth and that of its trading partners. About 150 years later, Harvard University business professor Michael Porter argued that the advent of a globalised knowledge economy has made it increasingly important to develop a focused national advantage.
There is ample recent evidence of where the UK’s advantage lies. At the end of September, the University of Oxford was named the world’s best university in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. It is one of three British universities in the top 10, and the UK has twice as many top 200 institutions per capita as the US or Germany. And, earlier this month, three British scientists won the Nobel Prize in Physics, further cementing the UK’s place as second only to the US in terms of number of scientific prizes won.
Focusing the UK’s post-European Union economy on education and science will not be to strike out into uncontested territory. Both the Republic of Ireland and Australia have recently made attracting the best international students and researchers a policy priority. Meanwhile, the UK has indicated that they may be less welcome. But while that will have reinforced universities’ nervousness about Theresa May’s premiership (given previous difficult relations when she was home secretary), her desire to champion particular industries creates an opportunity to map out an education strategy in line with her wider policy platform and public opinion.
The mandate given by the EU referendum is clear: unskilled immigration must be controlled. But international students and scientists are among the most popular migrants, according to recent ComRes and Ipsos MORI surveys, and, if anything, are welcome in higher numbers. This offers a platform for prioritising education and science as the UK redefines migration policy, with free movement for any student or academic – from any nation – with a place or job at a UK university. This should allow the UK to remain in the Erasmus student mobility scheme and the Horizon 2020 research programme. A visa regime akin to South Africa’s critical skills programme could also offer a universal right to work in the UK for any science graduate of a world top 500 university, coupled with an automatic two-year post-study visa for all graduates in priority subjects.
For the UK to become the world’s leading country for education and science, funding for research and development will also need to be increased from the current 1.7 per cent of GDP (compared with 2.8 per cent in Germany, 2.7 in the US and more than 4 per cent in Israel and South Korea). The plan by the chancellor, Philip Hammond, to use historically low borrowing costs to invest could encompass a fund that universities can bid for, to finance projects aimed at attracting the best researchers and biggest international collaborations. This could do for high-risk research and science what the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme and the Enterprise Investment Scheme have done for entrepreneurs.
Additionally, Foreign Office and British Council funding should support marketing for universities looking to internationalise, and the Department for International Development should fund UK scholarships for the brightest pupils from its focus countries. As an associate member of Horizon 2020, the UK should accept making a fair budget contribution, but also campaign to reduce bureaucracy and expand membership to make it a global forum for research cooperation.
Universities should seize the government’s recent requirement to help strengthen England’s fast-improving state school system. New freedoms around academic selection may make it easier to follow King’s College London and the University of Exeter in setting up schools focused on priority subjects. Institutions with technical expertise can learn from the University of Derby in offering leading vocational provision. Adult learning should be expanded beyond the traditional mature student: there are few better investments for the government or individuals than courses in coding, for instance.
Finally, UK higher education should follow the example of peers in the US, Finland and Israel in playing the fullest possible part in building a thriving local education technology industry. With a brand that is a byword for quality from Reykjavik to Rundu, UK universities should be at the forefront of the online course revolution. British edtech success stories such as Proversity, Fluency and Memrise should be seen as partners, not rivals, while early and enthusiastic adoption of new innovations will create a virtuous circle in which local start-ups quickly gain the standing and scale to expand internationally, attracting the world’s best edtech entrepreneurs (helped by supportive visas) to the UK.
Ricardo said comparative advantage is established “by stimulating industry, by regarding ingenuity, and by using most efficaciously the peculiar powers bestowed by nature”. It is time to move the UK’s leadership in education from a mixture of historical pre-eminence and individual achievement to a coherent strategy for national advantage.
Jamie Martin is an independent education consultant and was a special adviser to Michael Gove when he was the UK’s secretary of state for education.