The UK's higher education sector should stop trying to make a “special case” for itself in Brexit lobbying and instead focus on forging alliances with other sectors, a science policy expert has claimed.
Graeme Reid, professor of science and research policy at University College London, said there was “no need” for universities to ask for “special exemption” from potential new restrictions around issues such as mobility during the Brexit negotiations as other sectors share many of the same concerns.
Speaking on a panel on maintaining higher education integration post-Brexit at a Times Higher Education symposium on 22 June, Professor Reid said that the business model for large parts of the financial services industry is “constructed on the basis of free movement of people”.
“The sorts of things that trouble universities are closely aligned with the sorts of things that trouble investment banks, global law firms and global accounting firms,” he said.
Professor Reid, a former head of research funding in the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, added that two-thirds of the UK’s research and development comes from the private sector and half of that is conducted by companies that are headquartered overseas. This means that private research and development is “built very largely on the same model as the university sector”, he said.
“Instead of trying to make a special case for universities, I think that the university community needs to find alliances with other parts of the community so that we have a coherent ask,” he continued.
He said that he was recently approached by someone from the finance sector who was looking to find out how the university sector was communicating with government.
“He recognised that the government only has so much bandwidth for influence on Brexit negotiations and wanted to find out what the competition is doing,” he said.
“I wonder how many people from universities are talking to the agriculture or finance communities that have groups in front of government. I’d say we need to do a whole lot more of that to find alliances and work out what they’re asking for.”
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and former special adviser to David Willetts, when he was universities minister, also spoke on the panel.
Mr Hillman said that mission groups, while important, “amplify their [own] views” rather than the views of the whole sector.
“I very vividly remember saying once to Universities UK, ‘why are you lobbying me on this when every mission group is lobbying me on the opposite?’” he said.
“One of the problems with the structures we have is that we think through mission groups. Mission groups are important but they amplify their views and then there are other parts of the sector whose voices do not get the same amplification.”