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Facing down maximum uncertainty: strategies for Brexit

20 February 2018

Simon Marginson

Professor of International Higher Education
University College London

​It's now 20 months since the referendum decision to leave the EU, and just 13 months before the process become official in March 2019. That is not very long.

Higher education is one of the most Europeanised of all British sectors. It is scarcely possible to overstate the transformative impact of Brexit. Yet despite (and also because of) the massive effects in higher education, it has so far been difficult for universities to devise effective plans for life after Brexit. The level of uncertainty is exceptionally high.

UK universities moved early to reassure their non-UK EU citizen students and staff that they had strong institutional support and no-one needed to go anywhere. Late in 2017, phase one of the UK/EU negotiations concluded with a UK undertaking to provide rights of residence to EU staff, though the details remain to be clarified, including the crucial cut-off dates. Prior to that, the UK government had said that EU citizen students who are entering UK institutions now, before Brexit is consummated, will not lose their fee status. However, these are the only areas where forward moves have been made.

The UK government and the EU don't yet know what the parameters will be in central areas like trade and migration, let alone universities. First the main relationship has to be sorted. Then the transition years will follow. The options in higher education and research will remain uncertain for some time, and their resolution will take longer.

Yet the higher education items on the table are major, at the heart of mission and strategy. No doubt universities that make the right decisions now—that have the courage to move ahead of a government-defined agenda, and the wisdom to call it correctly—will secure an advantage when higher education is rebooted post Brexit, perhaps in five years' time.

It is complex. To make the right call means to have a successf​ul plan (and maybe a plan B) in relation to, the following items, both separately and in combination:

  1. Future EU student recruitment and revenues, assuming that after Brexit European students will be paying international student fees up-front in the year of study.
  2. Outward UK student mobility into Europe, without knowing whether continued participation in Erasmus+ is possible.
  3. Maintaining a continued flow from the pool of high quality European staff that in recent years have provided nearly half of all merit-based academic appointments.
  4. Preserving the flow of high quality European doctoral students, in some universities half or more of all PhD students in Engineering and other science technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.
  5. Future income for research, given that collaborative European research programmes such as Horizon 2020 have supported up to a third of funded UK research activity in some institutions and in certain disciplines (particularly non-STEM subjects). While there is some confidence that UK universities will stay in these programmes after Brexit, the UK is a major net beneficiary. Continued participation should not be seen as a done deal, especially if it is seen by EU member countries as UK cherry-picking.
  6. Future income for infrastructure and other projects that up to now have been supported by the European Regional Development Fund, and the European Investment Bank together with matching funds from UK sources.
  7. The recruitment of fee-paying international students, despite constraints on the market. Non-EU students are the only revenue item which can be grown quickly and at scale (Home Office permitting) to compensate for lost income under items 1, 5 and 6 in the above list.

The ESRC/HEFCE Centre for Global Higher Education, a research partnership of 13 UK and international universities, based at UCL, is currently investigating the likely consequences of Brexit as perceived in UK higher education institutions. This research is also examining the steps taken in institutions to monitor the policy environment, manage planning and data analysis, enhance the capacity to make and implement quick decisions, develop new lines of activity beyond Europe, and cope with the high uncertainty and multiple possibilities.

Two findings have emerged from the early case studies. First, high uncertainty coupled with expectations of a medium-term transition period may be feeding a 'wait and see' approach which is at odds with the weight and scale of the challenge. Are universities too dependent on government to set the rules for them?

Second, the financial effects of Brexit are likely to be sharply differentiated by institution and location. Though all higher education institutions face potential income drops some are more vulnerable than others in relation to EU students and European Regional Development Fund. Also, some are better placed than others to pump up international student numbers, primarily the 27 universities with favoured status under the government's pilot scheme for visa handling.

The findings from this research, and the broader set of issues for UK universities in the wake of Brexit, will be discussed at a breakout session at the International Higher Education Forum at the Nottingham conference centre on 14 March.​

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Universities UK

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Universities UK

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