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What does Brexit mean for UK Higher Education?

Two Prospect roundtables, in association with ACCA, tried to find out—and discuss the best route forward

By Prospect Team  

It’s one of the UK’s flagship industries overseas—so why is it so neglected in the discussion around Brexit? At both the Labour and Conservative conferences, Prospect hosted two expert roundtables with the ACCA on an area that the media, and many politicians, have overlooked: higher education.

In Liverpool for Labour party conference, the conversation moved from funding grants to student visas to how universities could best benefit local communities—and help those local communities see that the presence of a higher education establishment can be a positive thing.

Tom McEwan, who worked as a school teacher near Liverpool before shifting his focus to policy research, is part of the Higher Education Commission via Policy Connect. For him, the most important question was ensuring continuity of visas and funding after the UK leaves the European Union next March.

Audience members and panellists alike told stories of European colleagues who had either already begun to investigate jobs on the continent, or were considering moving. For some, government reassurances about their future in the UK still left them uncertain. Others were motivated by a sense that the best funding allocations, particularly in STEM subjects, would no longer make it to the UK. Both were subjects that Paul Blomfield, Shadow Minister for Exiting the European Union, and University of Sussex Vice-Chancellor Professor Adam Tickell are committed to tackling.

While these issues have been much-discussed in higher education circles, the question of what relationship the cultural image of universities has to Brexit has been foregrounded less frequently. As the discussions in Liverpool continued, however, it was one that came up again and again.

Tickell, for instance, emphasised the fact that Sussex contributes vastly to the economy in and around Brighton, and that part of his job is ensuring that this good relationship endures by actively building links with the local community. One audience member—a lecturer at another university—was particularly keen on this point, stressing that the divide some towns experience between students and “locals” helps foster the sort of mutual resentment and suspicion that has become a common feature of many of the political discourses around Brexit.

ACCA CEO Helen Brand also emphasised the place of universities in changing the political discourse—especially overseas. She explained how the ACCA “Accelerate” university partnership programme worked with universities overseas to help train students in accountancy and finance, and prepare them for the professional world.

Through her work on this and other programmes, Brand was able to understand the significance of UK higher education institutions as ambassadors overseas; an observation echoed by other panellists, who noted that—at a time when “Brand UK” is suffering post-Brexit—the prestige of UK universities was an important route to maintaining and strengthening overseas ties.

This theme would also prove central at Conservative party conference, held in Birmingham a week later. Claire Bennison, the Head of UK at ACCA, echoed many of Brands’ points, while also stressing the importance of supporting all areas of further and higher education post-Brexit, including apprenticeships and postgraduate training.

Having worked with SMEs and financial services closely, Bennison was also able to share her expertise regarding how universities can build links with businesses—a relationship which may become even more significant post-Brexit.

Professor Tickell, who appeared on both panels, was also able to speak to this aspect of higher education, as well as noting how researchers employed at Sussex were undertaking globally-significant research—highlighting in particular recent research on cardiovascular health. This was just one example of the kind of work which he stressed must be safeguarded.

Other topics caused some disagreement on the panel. Lord Peter Lilley, for example, stressed that while the prestige of UK higher education overseas is welcome, we might also question whether certain courses were cannibalising talent from other countries, leaving them short of—for instance—their best nurses and doctors. Ensuring that students do not overstay after they complete their courses would ensure this does not happen, while still sharing the benefits of excellent research and teaching environments. Similarly, he questioned why EU students and staff should enjoy rights that their rest-of-world colleagues do not, saying he would find this difficult to justify to entrants from further afield.

Amatey Doku, however—who is Vice President Higher Education in the NUS—did not see immigration as a zero-sum game. Instead, he warned that a hostile environment was putting off foreign students from attending UK universities, and making existing students and staff feel unwelcome. Dominic Trendall, also from Policy Connect, similarly stressed the need to create a “friendly environment” to ensure that visitors to and workers in UK universities did not feel as if they were the recipients of xenophobia or insecurity.

On one thing, however, the panel—indeed, both panels—agreed: that while the media may have focussed on trade and goods, higher education was a key part of the Brexit discussion; and one that’s unlikely to go away any time soon.

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