Advantage Britain: ruling the education world post-Brexit

With the right strategies, becoming the leading country for scholarship and science is within the UK’s grasp, says Jamie Martin

October 27, 2016
Nate Kitch illustration (27 October 2016)
Source: Nate Kitch

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.

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Print headline: Advantage Britain: education leadership in a post-Brexit world

Reader's comments (2)

"The mandate given by the EU referendum is clear: unskilled immigration must be controlled" I did not see this anywhere in the referendum ballot...typical Brexiteer nonsense
While I must appreciate the effort in trying to find a good news story in what Brexit might mean to universities, unfortunately, most of what is said here is simply your typical policy wonk stuff that relates only weakly to the reality of academic and scientific endeavour. This is no doubt due partially to the fact that most of the people leading university and education policy were either never academics or, if they were, were not so good at it to sustain their positions beyond being 'advisors' or university 'managers'. It is also the case that while foreign models are put forth, they are invariably done by people with no direct experience of the systems they espouse as models. Universities are quite complex beasts in reality but theoretically they are quite simple. What makes a university tick are three basic capitals -- (a) human/intellectual capital, (b) financial capital, and (c) social network capital. Beyond this you simply need to have complementary structures -- i.e., management structures, etc. -- that facilitate excellence. To get (a) you need an enticing proposition based on (b) and (c). X is a great place to be because very talented people are supported very well and are surrounded by other very talented people. To make (a), (b) and (c) work you need those complementary structures to be both trusting and unobtrusive. Most academics want none of the stuff that Mr. Martin argues would be the basis of competitive advantage (a concept, which, by the way, has mostly been discarded by academics at both the firm and national levels). Most academics don't want to be tools of government policy. Most academics want to advance knowledge in their field and engage with those with similar interests -- be they colleagues or students. A recent survey of academics showed that more than 60% of non-UK academics were considering the possibility of moving away. This includes both EU nationals and others caught up in the anti-immigrant rhetorical storm. This sentiment will not be assuaged by anything Mr. Martin discusses. The reason all the UK Nobel Prize winners were in the US is because they got (a), (b) and (c) in good measure. The reason all the US science Nobel prize winners were immigrants was because the US universities are simply better at giving scholars (a), (b) and (c). In the US, we have no university minister. We have no special education advisors. We allow each university to compete and to do so without radical strictures (REF and TEF anyone?) as to what excellence and quality entail. If Brexit is going to actually provide and opportunity it will because government gets out of the game of telling universities what to do and what matters. Just replacing EU strictures with UK government strictures solves nothing, particularly when it entails replacing one group of unknowledgeable and inexperienced bureaucrats with another group of the equally unknowledgeable and inexperienced.

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