Can anyone embody the qualities of both David Davis and Liam Fox?
Such a chimerical beast would alarm many. But it is, in some ways, what the University of Oxford may be trying to do in creating a new head of Brexit strategy. The post signals just how vital to the future of British universities the outcome of Brexit is.
Other universities are also making moves to shape strategies that aim to secure the best outcomes from the UK’s European Union exit.
Universities UK leads lobbying for the sector, which has clear goals for the UK to retain access to the EU’s research programmes and Erasmus+ mobility programme post-Brexit.
But with divisions emerging in higher education and some suggesting that UUK is missing the chance to lobby for a “sector-specific deal” to secure continued free movement with Europe for students and staff, other groups and individual institutions may be considering stepping up their own lobbying.
Oxford’s head of Brexit strategy is Alastair Buchan, a neurologist who has been dean of medicine and head of Oxford’s medical sciences division since 2008. His new role, which he started on 20 January, is a dual one covering not just lobbying, but also identifying new international opportunities.
An Oxford spokesman said that Professor Buchan will “develop a Brexit strategy which allows the university to continue as a world leader through the excellence of its research and teaching. Specifically, Professor Buchan will act as university ambassador, developing new international partnerships and networks and identifying new opportunities arising from Brexit.
“He will also ensure the university’s voice is heard and understood in the Brexit process, allowing Oxford to continue to welcome the world’s most talented academic staff and students and to collaborate with international partners on globally significant research projects.”
In structure, that sounds like it combines the government’s division of responsibilities on Brexit. Mr Davis is responsible for securing a deal with the EU as secretary of state in the Department for Exiting the European Union, while Mr Fox is secretary of state for international trade, responsible for drumming up new international trade deals.
Andy Westwood, associate vice-president for public affairs at the University of Manchester, said the Oxford appointment did seem to be a combination of the work of the two government departments, “ie how to do it [Brexit] as well as how to exploit it”.
He added that while many universities “have formal groups working on EU issues”, “on the whole it still seems to be the v-cs leading such work in most places”.
Professor Westwood suggested that Oxford might be one of the few institutions “who might seriously be changing gear”, seeing Brexit as an opportunity “to build some serious global business” on the basis of their reputation and to try to “distance [or] reduce the impact of domestic politics [or] political decisions on them”.
Other institutions are shaping strategies in different ways.
Alice Gast, the Imperial College London president, joined London mayor Sadiq Khan’s Brexit Expert Advisory Panel shortly before Christmas. The 14 experts, from fields including the science, technology and finance sectors, “will provide on-call advice and guidance to the mayor as he begins a series of monthly meetings” with Mr Davis, Imperial has said. Ensuring barriers to skilled migration are kept to a minimum is likely to be a priority for Professor Gast.
This will “lead communications” with staff and students on any Brexit-related changes that may affect them and advise university leadership “on challenges and opportunities likely to arise from Brexit, model scenarios which might impact fees, funding, research bids and immigration statuses and advise on changes which may be required to the university strategic plan”.
The action group will also “lead lobbying of the UK and Scottish governments and the EU to ensure the voices of St Andrews staff and students are heard at the highest levels of Brexit decision-making”. However, St Andrews said the group is in its early stages.
Dominic Shellard, vice-chancellor of De Montfort University, has taken another approach, visiting a number of European nations as well as India to reassure students that they remain welcome at De Montfort following the referendum result.
John Latham, Coventry University vice-chancellor, appeared alongside Professor Buchan at the Education Committee’s first hearing in its inquiry into the impact of Brexit on higher education last month. The hearing, held at Pembroke College, Oxford, was a golden opportunity for the sector and individual universities to have media impact, and lobbying impact on MPs.
Professor Latham, who is also chair of the University Alliance group, said Coventry’s Brexit strategy involves a focus on “allowing EU students to maintain access to a UK education”, including possible expansion of current transnational education offerings in Europe.
He hoped for continued UK access to the EU’s Erasmus+ student and staff mobility programme, but added: “Why can’t we have a ‘Global+’ programme for the UK and have a lot of [British] students going overseas?”
Professor Latham hoped that lobbying efforts could also “gain some kind of recognition” for the potential for an EU student fee in the future, which could perhaps be lower than those for non-EU students.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that while individual universities will be calculating what Brexit could mean for them as institutions, this work on “modelling the future” is not being shared or grouped together at sector level.
Hepi recently published the first econometric analysis of what Brexit could mean for student recruitment, and thus on higher education finances and the UK economy. Mr Hillman expressed surprise that the sector had not yet published such data.
For now, most talk of universities finding new international opportunities as part of a more global future post-Brexit remains as nebulous as the trade deals being sought by Mr Fox.
Theresa May has signalled that the government would welcome an agreement that sees the UK remain part of the EU’s research programmes – signalling that sector lobbying efforts on this have been successful. That must leave the future of student and staff mobility between the UK and EU, and contrasting visions of continued free movement or a dramatically improved visa system, as the likely focus of the sector’s lobbying efforts.