- 27 February 2017
- Posted in: Education & Training
The Future of Higher Education: Beyond Brexit conference had just started as the seismic decision from the Supreme Court justices was announced, ruling that the UK Government cannot lawfully bypass MPs and peers by using the royal prerogative to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. The conference was quick to debate these implications alongside other recent developments with the Prime Minister setting out the government Brexit aims and the launch of the industrial strategy green paper.
The conference opened with a European perspective from Brussels and Oslo, the European University Association’s Thomas Jørgensen opened by stressing that although there were grounds for optimism that some EU membership benefits could be salvaged the UK needs to be prepared for a fair but inferior deal. “Everything on the table needs to be worse than what it is presently,” he told the conference.
Jørgensen said that the EU has structures in places for association agreements to its Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+ programmes but the UK will need to invest in these collaborations and be realistic about the future EU-UK partnership. Jørgensen also highlighted the UK’s value to Europe, not just in terms of scientific output, but also in student mobility. With over 200,000 EU students studying in Britain he said that Europe does not have the capacity to teach take on these students even if they wanted to.
“The UK is essential to the system as a whole, we can’t take the UK out of the system without it having an impact.” Thomas Jørgensen
From Brussels the message was that the EU is ready and the next steps for the UK is to be in negotiation mode, so can the UK seek a concessionary association agreement for the sector and what would that look like? Professor Ole-Petter Ottersen helpfully expanded on this explaining what Norwegian membership was and the challenges of being both in and out of Europe. Ottersen said that in effect Norway were full members with no voting rights, the country has full participation in Horizon 2020 and Earsmus+ but the fee was substantial enough to run a deficit. He warned that bilateral research associations were cumbersome and labour intensive and hoped that UK approached negotiations with goodwill and with a focus on the greater good.
“We must not allow the clock to be set back decades – less mobility, less trust – we must see to it that Brexit does not have a disruptive impact on education and research.” Professor Ole-Petter Ottersen
Ottersen told the audience that he had seen first-hand the success of British research projects and how instrumental the UK has been in EU research collaborations, accounting for over 20% of projects.
“Europe continues to see the UK as a member of the university family – there is no alternative.” Professor Ole-Petter Ottersen
The Russell Group’s Head of Policy Jessica Cole asked how the UK can maintain that world-leading position post-Brexit and set out what the sector should be lobbying for. Immediate priorities were for confirmation of continued working rights for current EU staff and clarity on student immigration status and right to remain in the UK to work.
“EU staff are making a hugely important contribution to underpinning the science base of our universities with a high percentage teaching in STEM subjects and shortage areas.”Jessica Cole
Cole highlighted that EU students are particularly important for the subjects picked up by the government’s industrial strategy, if government were able to secure a good deal for universities Cole was positive the sector could make a success of Brexit via the focus on science, research and skills detailed in industrial strategy.
Justine Andrew, Director of Public Sector at KPMG, explored how universities had been responding to Brexit and the range of options open to institutions. In terms of strategy the sector is predicting 14.9% growth in overseas students at the same time it is being hit by a whole raft of external impacts. She told the audience there were huge opportunities for international expansion and with the devolution agenda for non-research les institutions to provide the skill requirements of local businesses and develop more vertical integration between education and industry. The apprenticeship levy could have a large impact on the sector and could be an area for universities to grow but Andrew believed too many were not yet set up to take advantage.
“Could Brexit be the catalyst for a greater diversification of strategy and for university’s to think differently?” Justine Andrew
Andrew also discussed campuses based overseas, an option UK university’s are looking closely at, and pointed that they have traditionally been institutions from the U.S. and tend to be specialist, not-for-profit, and offer the opportunity to study in Europe. The diversity of strategy was later picked up by Matthew Robb who stressed other impacts alongside Brexit, such as the Teaching Excellence Framework and Apprenticeship levy, would mean competition for students would change.
“The higher education landscape is changing at quite a rate, Brexit is not the largest force that will affect universities.” Matthew Robb
Robb, Managing Director at Parthenon-EY, argued that with potentially less EU students studying the UK alongside these impacts it was a new world facing the Higher Education sector. He said that digital offers and transnational education need to part of the restructure of the sector as more people are gaining degrees outside of the UK and the market continues to grow.
In the panel discussion Alex Davies said that the Chamber of Commerce had enormous support and was unanimously in favour of students being removed from immigration statistics and the disparity between EU and non-EU students transitioning into employment. Davies explained the chamber was lobbying hard for strengthening business and university links, Elsevier’s Dr Lesley Thompson highlighted the Brexit resource centre as a useful tool to find facts and figures to support UK-EU research collaborations.
“The UK is an incredibly strong research nation and it is a very connected and connecting nation. We have a very open, revolving door which has contributed to the UK’s remarkable research performance.” Dr Lesley Thompson
Dr Damian Mather, Principle Lecturer in Law of the European Union at Manchester Metropolitan University warned that the door may be closing. He told the audience that at the moment the UK has free movement of labour but if the government disposes of this then it will absolutely make it more difficult for student and staff mobility under the tier 2 visa system.
“A transitional agreement is crucial. If the government thinks it is going to take two years to untangle 42 years of legislation they are living on another planet.” Dr Damian Mather
University of Durham’s Dr Duncan Connors raised concerns for those working in the sector around Brexit, arguing that many academics are already looking to work at EU institutions in France, Holland and elsewhere. Connors stressed that uncertainty around future research funding beyond Horizon 2020 could be damaging to attract the best talent and similarly the lack of clarity for tuition fees and visas could derail access to top level students and research.