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What will universities mean for Brexit?

mike boxall | HE | 26 june 2016

UK higher education institutions must now ask not what Europe can do for them, but what they can do for Europe

So, loathing has trumped fear. Negative public perceptions and frustrations with life within the European Union have clearly outweighed worries about the uncertainties of life outside. The arguments are far from over, and “Europe” and all the connotations of the word will doubtless dominate political debate and parliamentary time for months and years to come. The mechanics and processes of Brexit will be hugely complex, and will inevitably throw up any number of unanticipated questions and choices.

For UK universities and everyone working in them, this is the outcome they feared and campaigned against. But was the very nature of that campaign actually counter-productive? The higher education community, led by Universities UK, based their case for Remain on the damage that leaving the EU might do to the interests of universities. They cited the potential loss of EU research funds, the fees of EU students and capital from European investment programmes and institutions. Putting these interests at risk was held in itself to be damaging to the wider national interest, with the potential financial losses multiplied and extrapolated into the billions of pounds.

But to the limited extent that these arguments entered the wider referendum debate, it has become apparent that they may have simply fuelled public perceptions that the advocates of continued EU membership represented a self-interested elite with their hands in the euro till. They were seen as not understanding the concerns and experiences of real people. A depressing feature of the later stages of the referendum discourse was the antipathy towards the arguments of academic and professional experts. The factual evidence they tried to offer was poo-pooed as the special pleading of the out-of-touch. The university community did little to counter this impression, the 400,000 views of a YouTube lecture by Michael Dougan, a specialist in EU law from the University of Liverpool, notwithstanding.

What has been signally missing from all the bandying of made-up numbers and speculation about different ways of accessing EU funds is any clear or compelling vision for the roles of universities in growing the UK’s engagement with the rest of Europe. Where, in all the briefing and counter-briefing on the referendum issues―or, come to that, in the government’s higher education white paper―has been the discussion of the merits or otherwise of the UK’s membership of the European higher education area, the Bologna process or the European credit transfer system? Where were the strategic partnerships with European institutions and programmes, bolstering UK universities’ plans for innovation in learning models, industrial collaborations or regional growth?

The answer is that these things had been considered unimportant or at best marginal by most British universities and policymakers, beyond their functions for accessing EU funding sources. For most British universities, international engagement is predominantly concerned with growing their businesses in China, the Far East and the Gulf States, with few having equal plans for building strategic relationships closer to home, within Europe.

This imbalance is odd, in many respects. It is doubtless more exciting to jump on planes to Shanghai or Dubai than to Dusseldorf or Gdansk. But the fact remains that building links with governments and universities in emerging countries is an expensive and difficult business, often with elusive benefits beyond the accretion of premium student fees. In contrast, European universities have similar working cultures, academic standards and institutional aspirations to those of their British peers. They work in the same business and labour markets as the clients―students, employers, international corporations―of British universities. And their working language, for teaching and research, is predominantly English.

For these reasons, European universities are more natural partners and collaborators for British universities than those based farther afield. And many of them are further down the road of innovation in learning and teaching, and in local engagement with industry and communities, than most UK institutions.
For example, Aalborg University in Denmark has been leading international best practice in problem- and practice-based learning for 40 years. Maastricht University in Holland has pioneered ‘triple-helix’ working with industry and regional development agencies for nearly as long. The EUniverCities network of 14 city-based collaborations between universities and local communities shows what could be achieved in the UK’s devolved city deals. Significantly the relatively few British universities pioneering similar innovations have all worked closely with European partners to share experiences and practices.

There will inevitably now be a big debate about what Brexit will mean for universities and the list of questions is long. Will the higher education and research bill survive? Do people still need to worry about the teaching excellence framework? What will happen to the 125,000 EU students currently studying in the UK (and those who might or might not follow them)? Will the billions borrowed through EU programmes and the European Investment Bank have to be repaid? Will UK researchers still have access to European facilities? All of these questions and more will preoccupy the higher education community over coming months, but the uncomfortable fact is they will matter relatively little to the wider unfolding project of building a post-Brexit UK.

As well as asking what Brexit will mean for their institutions, university leaders should be asking themselves what they should be doing to build the post-Brexit world. If, as they claim, universities represent gateways to the exchange of knowledge and learning with the rest of the world, then they should step up to lead the development of new relationships with the rest of Europe. They will be welcomed with open arms by their peers across the continent, who are already voicing their distress at the prospect of Little Britain turning its back on its natural partners.

Mike Boxall is a higher education expert at PA Consulting Group

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