Johnson ‘optimistic’ on UK’s EU recruitment prospects post-Brexit

Former universities minister hails higher education’s ‘strong brands’ in discussion marking new partnership between ApplyBoard and THE

October 21, 2020
Former universities minister Jo Johnson
Source: Education Investor
Former universities minister Jo Johnson

Brexit need not lead to a catastrophic decline in UK higher education institutions’ recruitment of students from the European Union, a former universities minister has said.

As negotiations on the two parties’ future relationship reach a fraught conclusion, Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, has indicated that a “no deal” Brexit is increasingly likely, leaving universities facing a host of uncertainties.

However, former universities minister Jo Johnson – the prime minister’s brother – has given a comparatively upbeat assessment of the UK’s ability to continue to attract students from the EU, despite the end of access to UK student loans, and the benefit they have enjoyed in paying domestic rather than international tuition fees.

Speaking to Education Investor Global, Mr Johnson cited a report by the Higher Education Policy Institute which warned that EU student numbers could fall by 50 per cent post-Brexit, but he said that while this was possible, “I am optimistic, not pessimistic, about UK institutions’ ability to compete on a level playing field with the EU, without the benefit of the loan book to support them”.

“I think there are strong brands within UK higher education that will be able to continue to attract significant numbers of EU students just as they do large numbers of international students from around the world, without having a subsidised student loan book to put into bat for them,” Mr Johnson said.

Mr Johnson was speaking in his capacity as chairman of the advisory board of ApplyBoard, a Canadian technology business that describes itself as the world’s largest platform for international student recruitment, and which earlier this year received a market valuation of $1.4 billion (£1.1 billion).

The interview coincided with the announcement of a partnership between ApplyBoard and Times Higher Education, which has in recent months unveiled partnerships with a number of leading players in international student recruitment, including SI-UK in the UK and AECC in Australia.

Paul Howarth, THE’s chief executive, told Education Investor Global that these partnerships represented a strategic move into assisting the millions of students who visit THE’s website to find the right study abroad options, and that his focus was on the quality of such partnerships to ensure they aligned with THE’s wider business.

Asked about the impact that Covid-19 was having on international enrolments in the UK this year, Mr Johnson said that while the detail would become clear in the next few weeks, “even in an optimistic scenario, my best guess is that [the decline] is going to be 25 to 40 per cent year-on-year”.

Looking beyond the short-term crisis, he said that the sector was going to need “levels of leadership of an extraordinary calibre over the next 12 months”.

“We are asking our senior teams in universities to manage a short-term crisis and create new forms of provision at the same time as preparing for fairly significant structural changes that are going to play out in the next three to five years,” Mr Johnson said.

“That is the disaggregation of the higher education proposition, more flexible learning, more modular funding, more opportunities for students to accumulate and transfer credit from one institution to another, and a breaking down of the barriers between FE and HE.

“These are big changes, and v-cs are going to have to compartmentalise their work in a complicated way both to manage the short-term crisis and the long-term changes coming down the line.”

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