Universities are facing iceberg alley

As campus fortunes fluctuate with changing oil, currency and tuition prices, a Brexit bounce is a possibility. The state can steer the academy towards it

January 12, 2017
Source: Getty

An iceberg so enormous that it could float to the tropics before it melts is preparing to split from the Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica.

Although described as a geographical rather than climatic event, it is suggested that the warming climate may have hastened the separation of this 5,000 sq km floater.

Meanwhile, a study in the journal Science Advances has replicated findings that global warming has not, as others have suggested, slowed in the first 15 years of the century.

These are just a few highlights from the first week of news headlines in 2017, which as usual were littered with stories about global warming. Little wonder, then, that universities have become increasingly active in dissociating from the fossil fuel industry. Apart from anything else, students now demand it. In the UK, about half of universities have now pledged to exclude fossil fuel from investments, according to the campaign group People and Planet.

But direct divestment only goes so far. The £54 billion Universities Superannuation Scheme, for example, states that it “cannot make investment decisions purely on the basis of an ethical or moral stance” and as such is “unable to operate blanket divestment policies”.

And, as a new report this week highlights, oil prices also have a direct bearing on university finances as a factor influencing international student flows.

According to modelling carried out by London Economics and commissioned by the Higher Education Policy Institute and Kaplan International, for countries that are large oil producers – the likes of Nigeria, which is a major exporter of both oil and students – a 10 per cent increase in the energy price index equates to a 3.8 per cent increase in undergraduates coming to the UK.

The study, which we cover in detail in our news pages, also sets out how a decline in the value of the pound and changes in tuition fees (such as harmonisation of European Union and non-EU fees) could impact on universities’ enrolments in a post-Brexit world.

The conclusion is that the combined effect could be net-positive for UK universities, at least in financial terms – but only if Britain does not become less welcoming, whether in sentiment or deed. As the report makes clear, this relies on the Home Office being prepared to let in extra numbers of overseas students, which seems unlikely at present.

Economic modelling, like climate modelling, has faced criticism in recent years. Failures to predict the financial crash, and warnings of immediate disaster in the wake of a Leave result, have fed into a growing crisis of public trust. Michael Gove, the former UK minister who infamously denounced “experts” in the EU referendum campaign, has since clarified that it was economists in particular who he had in mind.

But the difference between weather and climate is a vital distinction, and while the UK economy has not suffered a disastrous crash since June, longer-term forecasts remain gloomy.

As Andrew Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist, put it in an interview last week: “There’s been greater resilience…than we had expected. Has that led us to fundamentally change our view on the fortunes of the economy looking forward over the next several years? Not really.”

The London Economics study, showing that universities could benefit from a Brexit bounce, offers hope that with the right conditions, both globally and nationally, the UK can continue to thrive as a destination for overseas students.

But even in the most positive scenario such a bounce would not be evenly distributed across the sector, and the climate remains deeply concerning whatever the weather. Icebergs lie ahead. The government must do its bit to help universities avoid disaster.


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