This article was first published in Research Professional
So Brexit Day didn’t happen. The can has been kicked down the road again, leaving the UK in Eurolimbo, neither out of nor properly in the European Union and the rules, programmes, funding and institutions that underpin so much of the country’s economy.
As the Brexit process grinds through further rounds of political negotiations, with a long delay or "flextension" a likely outcome, higher education representatives will no doubt reiterate their case for favourable treatment and additional support for recruitment of staff and students, mobility and research funding.
Frankly, they might as well save their breath as few people outside the higher education echo chamber will be listening. The national image of universities has been badly tarnished in recent times and they have few friends left in Westminster or Whitehall. Even those they do have are likely to rank universities’ interests below the crises facing schools, colleges and skills training—not to mention wider economic and social worries.
Universities were outspoken advocates of EU membership throughout the referendum debate and have remained so since. But the case they have sought to make—that leaving would damage the revenues and status of the UK’s world-class academic institutions—has been vilified by the Brexit camp as exemplifying the self-interests of elites and experts in cahoots with Brussels. The rational arguments for EU membership have been lost in the factional wars, and even ardent Remainers seem reconciled to making the best of life outside (but still engaged with) the union.
There may, however, be an upside for universities now that the spectre of a no-deal crash-out has (hopefully) been averted and the Brexit debate moves into the practicalities of the UK’s future trading relationships with Europe. Greater attention can now turn to neglected national crises ranging from lagging industrial performance to corrosive societal inequalities and Britain’s declining influence on shifting global dynamics.
Those issues have been identified and analysed in a plethora of government and think tank reports published by organisations including Nesta, the Office for National Statistics, the Social Mobility Commission and the Institute for Fiscal Studies, variously highlighting shortcomings in the UK’s industrial performance and inequalities in regional and social prosperity and opportunities. Beyond Brexit, there are also ongoing challenges arising from the shifting dynamics of globalisation, especially around relationships with China.
Successive governments have acknowledged these national challenges and pledged to address them, albeit with limited money or impact. Now, recent policy announcements regarding industrial strategy, growing places and high-skills immigration are staking claims on the £20-billion Brexit deal bonus signalled in the chancellor’s spring statement. All can be expected to feature prominently in the forthcoming comprehensive spending review and the associated debates about national priorities for post-Brexit Britain.
It stretches optimism to expect much, if any, new money for universities from the spending review; on the contrary, the more likely prospect is a reduction in direct and regulated funding. But there almost certainly will be new money and associated political oomph for wider industrial, social and trade developments that could benefit well-placed higher education institutions.
Marriage of interests
There is a potential marriage of interests here. Many universities are already rethinking their roles and strategies towards closer engagement with the changing needs of business, society and individuals in the 21st-century economy. In different ways, they are realigning their missions and services in support of national efforts on three fronts: industrial competitiveness, regional and civic regeneration, and international connections.
For example, we have seen Aston University and Cranfield University positioning themselves as the go-to partners for improving productivity and innovation in business. The University of Northampton and London South Bank University have become agents of inclusive opportunities and social enterprise in their localities, and the University of Warwick and University College London have built strategic alliances with like-minded universities in Europe and around the world.
These developments (and many others like them) have not been driven primarily by Brexit but mostly represent long-term strategic responses to the precarious outlook for the traditional business of teaching and research. Fortuitously, these moves towards greater external engagement chime with the agenda for rebooting our ailing economy and rebuilding our broken society, made so much more pressing after Brexit.
Realising the potential of this convergence will depend in large part on the will and ability of universities to reposition themselves in the national consciousness, less as jewels in the country’s institutional crown and much more as committed leaders and agents of post-Brexit national regeneration. Not only could this help savvy institutions to tap additional sources of business beyond their shrinking core revenues, but it would also do much to restore the battered reputation of universities in public and political esteem.