UK universities are on an island adrift

Since the Brexit vote, UK institutions have been losing friends and influence around the world. That will continue unless they win political support

March 2, 2017
Asian students
Source: Alamy

When Theresa May went to India on her first trade mission as UK prime minister last autumn, her handling of the sensitive issue of student mobility was atrocious.

Caught on the hop when her opposite number raised it, May failed to give a substantive response during her three-day trip. This was not just a diplomatic faux pas, though it was certainly that. It also illustrated how far May’s priorities – as the hard-line home secretary catapulted into the top job – differed from those of the Indian prime minister. Remember that the whole point of this trip was to persuade Narendra Modi that post-Brexit Britain would be a partner unabashedly open for business.

One UK vice-chancellor accompanying May was so appalled by her failure to grasp the significance of this flow of students that he put his head above the parapet to say so. Writing in Times Higher Education, Sir Keith Burnett, vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield, warned: “Indians who studied in the UK say we don’t act as if we are good friends any more. They say we want their money and business but are not willing to teach their children, even if they pay full whack. They hear that our universities are allowed to teach and take the money only if Indian students are rich enough not to need a job, or can graduate to a job that pays over the odds in some parts of the UK. The Indians I have met say this is not really friendly at all…The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and a 50 per cent drop in the number of Indians studying in the UK since 2010 should be the mother of all wake-up calls.”

In this week’s THE, we hear further warnings from India about how the country’s attitude to the UK as a study destination has soured.

Speaking last week, India’s deputy high commissioner in London said that education had been the most significant “cement” in the relationship between the two countries for decades, but that the path we are currently on is a road to serious marital strife.

As well as financial considerations, he pointed out that educating Indian students gave the UK enormous soft-power benefits, and that Germany was already catching up in terms of numbers.

The loss of students, well documented as it is, is not the only threat posed by a retreat from international mobility. In our cover story this week, we take a look at some of the developed higher education systems that are waiting to step in and offer attractive alternatives to academics who no longer see the UK as a welcoming or enticing destination (future access to European research funding is one crucial factor here – and our snapshot poll suggests that the cultural climate could be even more significant).

As our profiles show, Australia, Germany, the Republic of Ireland, Canada and Singapore all have obvious selling points, and all would love to gobble up some of the academic talent that resides in UK universities, or that might have been expected to end up in them.

There is an argument that the US finds itself in a similar position to the UK, in light of Donald Trump’s anti-foreigner, anti-intellectual presidency. But the pre-eminence of the US system, at least at the top end, could be said to be built on firmer, less intertwined foundations than that of the UK.

The private wealth of its heavily endowed elite institutions is not going anywhere. The US is less reliant on international academic talent than the UK (indeed, there is only one US institution in the top 30 of THE’s ranking of the most international universities in the world, compared with 13 in the UK). And it does not have the UK’s reliance for research funding on a continental bloc that it is currently seeking to divorce. To return to the question of international students, UK universities are also far more reliant financially on fees from this source.

Asked what impact Trump would have on the US academic talent pool, Mitch Daniels, president of Purdue University (and a former Republican governor of Indiana), was bullish: “I would expect it to have a close to zero effect,” he told us. The same cannot be said about Brexit and, as the triggering of Article 50 to take the UK out of the European Union approaches, there’s work to be done to ensure that May puts a little more weight on universities’ priorities than she has in the past.


Print headline: An island at risk

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