Universities must find a way to turn change into advantage again
The higher education sector is not resistant to change, far from it.
In recent years, the sector has responded positively and proactively to moves by the UK Government to step back from direct funding and the introduction of student tuition fees in 2009. Many universities have adapted their business models accordingly and now attract significant numbers of students from the EU and the rest of the world, enhancing cultural and intellectual life on campus and bolstering institutional income and sustainability.
However, the country’s decision to vote for a Brexit is threatening to bring yet another sea change. Depending on the nature of any separation that takes place, EU students could find the UK is a less attractive destination in the future, particularly if they are no longer charged the same fees as domestic students. The sector also employs large numbers of staff from the EU and if worker mobility is not possible in the same way in the future, this could create significant gaps in terms of the education sector’s capability and capacity.
Instead of waiting for Article 50 to be triggered and the two-year countdown to begin, many universities are aware that they need to do what they can to plan ahead. Some will already be taking steps to reassure staff and students, as firmly as possible, that they will continue to have a place at the institution in the future. Others will be trying to work out a way to enable the continued recruitment of students from the EU in the future, even if the process has to be more complex and more akin to that used for international students. Where there’s a will, there will be a way.
Supporting this agenda, Universities UK is calling for education sector leaders to press the UK Government to ensure that staff and students from the EU can continue to work and study at British Universities in the longer term.
Leaving aside the impact on intellectual and cultural capital, universities have become increasingly reliant on overseas students to boost their income and any downward movement in the flow of students from the EU would have a significant impact. To make matters worse, the number of international students seeking visa applications to come and study in the UK has fallen too – these applications were 6% down in the year to March 2016, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
Looking beyond any impact on tuition fee income, there may well be other repercussions for higher education institutions. The sector accesses significant funding from the EU for research and other projects, and depending on how negotiations go, it may not be eligible for this in the future. Cross-EU research collaborations may also be more difficult to establish in the future.
Taking all things into account, the Brexit decision could end up costing British Universities in more ways than one – not just by impinging on funding streams but also by removing access to some highly-skilled people and blocking EU-backed research activity.
To prevent this from happening, the higher education sector will need to work together and ensure its voice is heard once the Brexit negotiations begin. The sector has demonstrated its ability to turn change to its advantage before and it can again.