Universities must “capitalise” on the results of the European Union referendum by driving international student mobility and proving that the UK higher education sector is “tolerant” and “open-minded”.
That is the view of Anne Marie Graham, head of outward student mobility at the UK Higher Education International Unit, who said that currently the UK does not have “a culture of mobility”, in which students expect to go abroad as part of their studies.
She added: “Mobility and internationalisation and being outward-looking is now the hottest political topic – if we capitalise on that then, who knows, we could be a genuinely outward-looking mobility-embedded higher education culture and that’s what we should be aspiring to.”
Speaking at a Westminster Higher Education Forum event on the future of the UK’s outward student mobility strategy on 5 July, Ms Graham said: “There are a lot of uncertainties at the moment, we have a lot of unanswered questions.
“But for me there is one thing that is absolutely certain and that is that international mobility is even more important than it has been. It has just gone right to the top of the list because we need our students to be internationally mobile, we need them to be ambassadors to the UK, we need them to go out there and show people that we don’t hate them, that we are open-minded, that we are tolerant, and that we are interested in other cultures.”
She added that she did not think the Brexit vote would have a short-term impact on UK universities’ partnerships with other European institutions.
“In the UK we have so many established partnerships between European universities, I think they are strong and they will want to continue,” she said.
Asked whether the referendum result would push UK universities to focus on collaborations with partners outside the EU, she said: “There’s been a drive over the last several years anyway in terms of diversifying the number of countries UK universities partner with so I think that drive will continue.”
Ruth Sinclair-Jones, director of the Erasmus+ UK National Agency, who also spoke at the event, said that the referendum result would act as a “wake-up call” for institutions in the UK to evaluate their previous relationships with the rest of Europe.
She said one “important trend” for universities to “think about” is that the number of UK students going abroad during their degree is “low” compared with other large European countries with similar populations such as France, Germany and Spain.
She suggested this was due to students’ perceived language barriers, financial barriers and that it is “the exception rather than the norm” for UK students to spend time studying or working abroad.
Asked whether there was a contingency plan in place if the UK is no longer able to participate in the Erasmus+ programme, she said: “It is far too soon to be thinking about that at this stage.”
She added: “Our main message is that we carry on in 2016, we carry on in 2017, as we are now, but we are clearly having discussions with BIS [the UK government's Department for Business, Innovation and Skills] and the International Unit and we will have discussions with the [European] Commission about the future.
“If all of us work on that basis then the programme will be successful in the short term but also well-positioned to continue in the longer term.”