I have seen the shock and sadness with which the referendum result was greeted in our sector. I have also seen the baffled responses of higher education leaders in other parts of Europe. I have been, frankly, rather ashamed of the fact that the UK’s decision affects so many outside the UK in ways that we cannot yet predict.
As the summer comes to an end and the dust settles around the new political reality, we find ourselves facing a great challenge. Our job is to advocate to our leaders, in the UK and across Europe, what seems self-evident to us: that mobility amongst academic staff and students is the lifeblood of the university system; that research conducted with European and international partners is generally stronger; that university research and innovation networks with Europe and the wider world bring tangible benefits to economies – both ours and those we work with.
But we also face a perception challenge. If this referendum decision makes the UK look inward-looking and unfriendly – less open and less inclusive – we have to challenge that. Our universities are international to their core. They bring together people from all over the world to think and learn together and offer an exceptional education as a result of that outward facing, multicultural character. Our international staff and students are highly appreciated and valued on campus. And we know, because we have done extensive polling on the subject, that the general public also has a very positive attitude towards international students.
Leaving the EU will be difficult for UK universities – but it is emphatically not going to reverse a centuries-old tradition of international connectedness. The fact that so many of our students, staff and research partnerships come from outside Europe should reassure European counterparts that our membership of the EU is not the only determinant of collaboration in higher education. We may need different mechanisms but I am absolutely certain that we will find a way.
The numbers speak for themselves. We have staff and students from over 200 countries and territories in our universities; a quarter of academic staff is from outside the UK as well as 17% of our students. Nearly half of all articles produced by UK academics have an international co-author, and of these, nearly half of the collaborators are in Europe.
I spend an unusual amount of time reading university internationalisation strategies and I’ve seen the growth in appreciation of the role of outward student mobility for UK students as an important part of a complete higher education. More and more of our universities are setting themselves ambitious targets in this area – and goodness knows we need to because the UK’s record in this area is frankly woeful.
Finally, UK universities are leading the world in the provision of transnational education – UK programmes delivered overseas, usually in collaboration with universities in a host country. This sort of provision grew by 13% in the last year and has driven an astonishing growth in university to university partnerships around the world, contributing to the development of domestic higher education quality in a wide range of emerging economies. So when we say #weareinternational, it is a statement of fact, as well as a well as a statement of principle.
Our job now is to come up with positive suggestions to help our own, and other governments, see a way to preserve the essential basis for university cooperation across Europe. This is not about arguing for no change – we can’t ignore the outcome of the referendum – but there are models available to us both within Europe and beyond it which we could adapt to ensure that there are minimal barriers to collaboration in research; mobility of students and staff; and cooperation in innovation.
But we will need our counterparts in Europe to work with us to find these solutions. I was absolutely delighted by the swift action by National Rectors Conferences from 25 European Member States who reacted to the Brexit vote by reaffirming their desire to cooperate with UK universities. We will need those voices to be heard in their own national political debates as Brexit becomes a matter for other European leaders through the decisions which will be taken by the European Council. Universities could so easily get lost in the debate – which will be about so many important things. Universities matter – and they are better when they are internationally connected! We are international, and we want to stay that way.