Home > Blog > Brexit: challenges and opportunities

Brexit: challenges and opportunities

Vivienne Stern

Vivienne Stern

Universities UK International

​'To be world class, you must be global.' So argues Phil Baty, editor of the THE World University Rankings, who will speak at UUKi's forthcoming International Higher Education Forum on 21 March.

For all the limitations of rankings, Phil's central point is surely correct. Better research; better education; better opportunities for graduates come from internationally connected universities.

That's why the UK's decision to leave the EU left some of us with our hearts in our boots. But there's an upside to Brexit. 

First: a Prime Minister who was not previously a natural ally of the university sector made collaboration in research with European partners one of just 12 priorities for the future relationship between the UK and the EU. Given the immensity of the political issues swirling around her landmark Lancaster House speech in January, that is a considerable development. Vocal campaigning by university, business and science community leaders have raised awareness of the connection between international collaboration and the quality of education and research, and of the enormous value they create for the UK. That these things are on the political map at this period of turmoil is no mean feat in itself.

Second: the government determination to strengthen trading relationships with partners beyond the EU, combined with falling net migration announced last week, could finally shift the wind in our direction on visa policy. During Theresa May's visit to India in November, Modi's message that 'you want our trade, but not our children' hit home. As Paul Wellings, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wollongong in Australia will tell the conference on the 21st, Australia's university sector has learned to work with the grain of trade talks to create opportunities for student and staff exchange, education services and even research. UK Trade Minister, Mark Garnier MP, who will also speak at the conference, has already demonstrated a commitment to universities as partners in the UK trade agenda. We have a window to influence government; to show them what universities can offer to the UK to support UK trade ambitions - including through the personal networks built up with people who study here and, evidence suggests, return to other countries willing to retain business links with us.

Third: we are told that the vote to leave the European Union was not a vote to leave Europe, and that Britain will become more open to the world, not less. Personally, I am shocked in retrospect by how little effort we made at a national level to develop and maintain bilateral ties with some of our nearest neighbours and strongest partners. Over the last two years, as the referendum loomed on the horizon, we rethought our approach. Instead of engaging with European partners only through Brussels, we began developing much better links with our equivalent bodies in Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Poland and elsewhere. Since the referendum result these links have proved to be precious. Immediately following the vote, 25 other national rectors' conferences (UUK's equivalents) jointly issued a statement underlining their commitment to continued cooperation with the UK in higher education and research. Since then, we have held extensive discussions with counterparts who share our aim that this kind of co-operation should be protected, as far as possible, from the inevitable rancour of the exit negotiations. In particular, in student and staff exchange, and research collaboration via the European Framework programmes, there is a strong feeling that there is a win-win to be had in ensuring that the UK can continue to contribute, as well as draw on European programmes. It's good to know that we have allies who will make the argument in their own member states – although we must be realistic about how much influence we will have over decisions which will, ultimately, be driven by bigger political forces.

One of our most important allies, also speaking at the IHEF on the 21st, is Professor Rolf Tarrach, President of the European Universities Association. He is a powerful and passionate advocate of the argument that all European universities benefit from the opportunity to collaborate with the UK - just as we benefit from the opportunity to work with European counterparts. In his contribution to the conference, however, he will argue that the Brexit and Trump votes carry a deeper call to action for universities: scientists have a duty to respond to the challenge to evidence, expertise and truth with better science, and with a commitment to reproducibility, rigour and openness.

He will be joined on the panel by Allan Goodman, President of the US Institute of International Education (IIE). Although planned long in advance of Trump's election, there is a powerful resonance to the fact that Allan will use this opportunity to launch the IIE's PEER platform – an initiative to connect opportunities for displaced and refugee scholars with opportunities to study around the world.

Of course, I am constitutionally optimistic, but I like the fact that there is a strongly proactive theme in our conference. Yes, we are buffeted by political winds, but we can make our own weather too.​

Leave a Comment

Nathan says:
2 August 2017 at 12:26

There's a lot of uncertainty with Brexit that makes someone like me worried. The company I work for is based in the tech industry. We've been looking to recruit more people for a while now and the concern now is with the loss of freedom of movement we're now going to be working with a much smaller pool of talent, with a shortage of web developers in the industry.

"Sorry everyone, but we need to talk about Brexit."

12 February 2019
Universities UK International Director Vivienne Stern on the conversations the sector is having as we head towards the Brexit denouement.


Reaching out beyond Brexit: community engagement at the University of Lincoln

24 January 2019
Being situated in a Leave-voting area hasn't stopped the University of Lincoln from making an impact in the community, writes Professor Toby Wilkinson.