Confronting Brexit: the perks and pitfalls of plausible moves

How to unravel the Gordian knot of an EU exit? The strength of the UK higher education sector gives Anton Muscatelli hope

October 6, 2016
Miles Cole illustration (6 October 2016)
Source: Miles Cole

The recent announcement that the University of Oxford has moved to the top of Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings for 2016-2017 further cemented UK higher education’s world-leading status. But it only heightened the anxieties in the sector about whether it can retain that status after the UK leaves the European Union.

Some sector leaders have suggested that Brexit may lead them to increase activities within the EU, including establishing branch campuses, primarily to offset potential falls in recruitment from the Continent (“After Brexit, will UK universities set up EU branch campuses?”, News, 19 July). Branch campuses could happen, but it depends on a number of economic and regulatory drivers, and partnership models are more likely than stand-alone ventures.

Transnational education by UK universities in other regions, such as Asia, has been driven by rising gross domestic product per capita in those countries and excess demand for higher education, given constrained local supply. In light of UK higher education’s strong performance, it is not surprising that UK universities have been the partners of choice for countries such as China.

But UK transnational growth has also been driven by regulation. In the past four years, data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that growth in the number of non-UK students coming to study in the UK has grown only slightly (by between 1 and 4 per cent). Some of this is attributable to the impact of tighter UK visa regulation compared with competitors such as the US, Canada and Australia – not to mention the continental European countries teaching degree courses in English. UK universities have also grown their online provision, matching the needs of students for whom study in the UK is not affordable.

In 2014-15, about 120,000 EU students enrolled for first and postgraduate degrees in the UK. The key question for UK universities thinking of establishing a campus in continental Europe is how much of this provision will be displaced by tougher post-Brexit controls on EU student mobility, or by the negative signals that Brexit sends to European students. Even if the UK opts for a “hard Brexit” and leaves the European Economic Area, I still believe that the government will recognise the vital skills – especially in science, technology, engineering, medicine and mathematics – that EU graduates bring to UK businesses. Economic success post-Brexit will still require the UK to attract skilled and talented people. Likewise, for the UK to prosper outside the EU, it will need the research, innovation and exporting strength of its higher education sector. These are also powered by our EU colleagues who are studying, living and working here. Hence, labour mobility controls will focus on lower-skilled immigration.

There are other barriers facing UK universities wanting to establish a fully fledged campus in continental Europe. One is the cost of reproducing infrastructure in costly teaching areas, such as science, engineering and clinical subjects – particularly given that the demand for higher education in the other 27 EU countries is not outstripping local provision to the same extent as elsewhere in the world. The other barrier is that there is no automatic recognition within the EU of academic qualifications obtained in other countries (although de facto mutual recognition has increased). This limits current cross-border demand, and EU regulation may get tighter if there is a hard Brexit.

More plausible is a scenario in which universities use bases in continental Europe as feeders to recruit to their UK campus. Even more plausible is an upscaling of what already exists: a network of extensive degree-awarding collaborations and partnerships with European peer universities. The University of Glasgow has already developed a wide range of dual-degree agreements with major EU universities across many disciplines at both undergraduate and postgraduate level.

A further major headache for UK universities is the prospective loss of access to European research funding. This could precipitate a substantial loss of talent, as the UK is heavily dependent on EU citizens who occupy doctoral and postdoctoral positions: a foundation on which our world-class research is built. In some UK universities, up to 50 per cent of postdoctoral positions are held by EU citizens. They are the lifeblood of our academic research, but would be less likely to be attracted to the UK if they were unable to access European funding.

There has been some talk that setting up a base in the EU would allow UK institutions to tap into such funding. But the regulations require the host institution of any EU grant recipients (public or private) to be established under national law in an EU member state or associated country, and to have “the infrastructure and capacity to carry out frontier research projects”. So to avoid such a ploy being seen as an escamotage, it would need to be a joint venture with an EU-27 entity.

On research and innovation, the UK’s best response is to seek associated country status. Most forms of Brexit would allow this, with a UK co-investment in the European research budget. Indeed, the strength the UK adds to pan-European research, which is valued by many other EU countries, could actually help in the UK’s Brexit negotiation.

It is also extremely likely that the UK’s higher education sector will be an asset in any negotiation of trade deals and markets beyond the EU. A 21st-century deal will not be like a 20th-century one, focusing only on trade in goods and services. Successful deals with major emerging countries could depend on the UK offering access to its higher education sector through an appropriate student visa regime and greater collaboration. Since ancient times, trade and knowledge assets have played key roles in diplomatic negotiations. Brexit is not any different, and higher education is one of the UK’s best assets.

Anton Muscatelli is principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Glasgow.

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Reader's comments (1)

Even this fairly reasonable article misses the main point: Brexit means the break between England and Europe in political, economic and cultural terms. Faced with the current wave of english nationalism, with the outspoken anti-European and often ridiculous behaviour of english politicians (going as far as to hit each other in the European Parliament...) even Europeans who, like myself, have lived and worked in England will simply take their distance. Unless the english reconsider, that cultural distance will grow in the coming years and most of us will become fairly indifferent towards England. Naturally that will diminish cooperation with english science and scholarship, which for decades suffers from overestimating itself and its role in Europe-- as this article confirms.

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