The same questions are being asked in universities and colleges across the nation this week: what’s going to happen now? What does Brexit mean for us? The simple, but unhelpful, answer is that we don’t know.
The lack of any vision (from any quarter) for post-Brexit Britain is all too apparent. But the uncertainty for the higher education sector goes beyond relationships with the rest of Europe, it also includes the significant question of what will happen to the current higher education and research bill.
During the process of leaving the EU, much will depend on the atmosphere in which arrangements are redefined. If it becomes acrimonious, the backlash for universities could come quickly. Outstanding and new bids for EU funding (from Horizon 2020, European Social and Infrastructure Funds, the European Investment Bank or other community programmes) could be rebuffed by Brussels, for example. A conciliatory atmosphere should at least ensure a soft landing for those universities that depend on EU support, and greater potential to negotiate constructive alternatives.
In parallel with the next wave of manoeuvres, we are in for an extended period of domestic parliamentary turmoil. Legislating for the Teaching Excellence Framework (Tef) and a new Office for Students will be a long way down the priority list during this time.
There will inevitably be a nationwide journey through the well recognised stages of grief, progressing from denial through anger to depression and eventual acceptance.
And then will come the upward turn towards hope and reconstruction. We will need to focus on these constructive responses to work towards a post-traumatic, post-Brexit future. But what should the higher education sector be doing now, as the dust settles?
Universities should be carefully analysing their dependency on EU policies, funding and relationships, which are likely to affect areas such as student recruitment, research projects and investment programmes. Leaders should be making plans to mitigate possible negative impacts.
In particular, they should be confirming and strengthening their existing partnerships with European institutions so that these can continue into the future even as the context changes. UK and European HE providers are natural partners and collaborators on many levels, and European universities are likely to be keen that this continues.
Institutions need to revisit their business and marketing strategies in the light of what is likely to be an even more challenging domestic context. The Tef and other proposed measures to encourage competition may not go ahead exactly as proposed, but the underlying demands for quality, relevance and employability in a buyers’ market for HE services will remain. Universities must not take their eyes off this ball, regardless of the changes to come.
Lead the community
Most importantly, every university should be considering how they will respond to the social divisions and frustrations revealed by the EU referendum. Analysis of the vote has highlighted a lack of hope for the future among young people, especially those in some of the most disadvantaged cities and regions of the country.
Universities can and must be part of the response, playing prominent roles in local economic and community development programmes. This is especially true of those directed towards growing the skills of local workforces and fostering opportunities through locally focused enterprise, innovation and productivity.
The coming months will undoubtedly be challenging for higher education as for the rest of the economy, but they need not be disastrous. There are opportunities for our universities to show leadership in shaping our post-Brexit society, provided they can avoid sinking into the cycle of denial, anger and renegotiation likely to preoccupy the headlines.
Mike Boxall is a higher education expert at PA Consulting Group