In the run up to the EU in-out referendum held on June 23, most stakeholders in the United Kingdom’s higher education sector opposed Brexit. This included 103 vice-chancellors, 56% of college students, as well as Jo Johnson, the UK’s secretary of state for education and the brother of Boris Johnson, who led the out campaign but who has now stepped down from the race to succeed interim prime minister David Cameron. At the same time, 90% of leading economists in the United Kingdom warned about the adverse effects of Brexit on the UK economy.
The question now is whether the fears of Britain’s universities will come true.
In the long run, I don’t believe Brexit need bring about the apocalypse anticipated by many, providing that both major parties in the United Kingdom are able to elect viable leaders quickly. This diagnosis does not preclude my opinion that the Brexit process represents one of the major political errors in recent history, but I also believe it is now time to act constructively and collectively to create the best possible framework for all parties.
That said, it’s early days: the dust has yet to settle, and it’s unclear if and when the UK government will trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treat and begin the process of exiting from the EU. The British people themselves seem divided along geographical, generational and political lines on the enforceability of the referendum’s result, as well as on what the country should now do.
Assuming Brexit goes ahead, the most likely outcome would be for a UK-EU relationship along the lines of Norway’s, although that could take several years. This would mean Britain accepting European treaties and the free movement of people, goods and capital with the EU. The irony of such a deal is that this would be counter to what most Brexit supporters wanted, given that their main concern was to halt immigration while enhancing British sovereignty. In short, such an outcome would not represent a substantial de facto change from the current situation, which has prompted more than one commentator to ask why a referendum was needed in the first place.
As for Britain’s universities, the uncertainty and economic turbulence to be expected will likely impact negatively.
The current institutional framework between the United Kingdom and the EU will probably remain unchanged over the coming two years, the maximum time allowed to reach an exit agreement. However, during that time we can expect to see a substantial drop in the number of applications from foreign students to British universities, despite the pound’s depreciation, which lowers tuition costs and living expenses in Britain. The main reason for a drop in applications would be concerns among non-UK students about finding work after they complete their studies, given that it will be more difficult for them to get a work visa, currently not a requirement for EU citizens.
We can also expect to see a drop in the number of applications to attend British universities from students outside the EU, given that they will no longer be able to move freely to other countries in the European area: in fact there has already been a drop in applications to UK business schools due to restrictive visa policies to non-EU students implemented by Cameron’s government over the last five years.
In the short term, we may also see a drop in the number of applications for professorial or research positions at UK universities from EU member states, again, as a result of uncertainty about the need for work visas. However, this decline may be compensated by an eventual increase in applications from non-EU member states.
It is also possible, but by no means certain, that in the longer term, some UK academics will have to pull out of EU-funded joint research projects with other European universities. That said, ongoing projects sponsored by the Horizon 2020 scheme will not be affected and will continue until completion.
The impact of all this on the more prestigious British universities, which occupy leading positions in global rankings, will probably be minimal. But universities with less marketable brands will certainly face difficulties, and may find themselves having to merge with other institutions or setting up joint ventures to gain economies of scale and improve their international bargaining power and exposure. Private universities, still the minority in the UK, and that depend mainly on international students, will be hit hard.
We can also expect budget cuts and a postponement of investment plans at most British universities. The predicted slowdown in the British economy from Brexit will almost certainly lead to less government education funding. This may prompt some British universities to hike their tuition fees.
But even taking into account the abovementioned negative consequences over the next few years, in the longer term, I believe the situation will stabilize. The two main reasons for this are:
Firstly, pragmatism will prevail. At the moment, everybody is in a state of shock following the divorce announcement, but given the lengthy time period set aside for exit negotiations, along with the complexity and diversity of the outstanding issues to be discussed, the likely outcome will be to maintain the status quo in education and research, two areas much less controversial than trade.
Secondly, higher education is now a global industry. This process of globalization is irreversible, given the international integration of educational activities, the impact of technology and the free flow and exchange of people and ideas. British universities play a fundamental role in this global education scenario, one in which the lingua franca is of course, English. Regardless of the institutional and regulatory framework, there is no reason why the current model of relationships between institutions will not continue. What’s more, in many cases, these relationships are based on bilateral or multilateral agreements between universities and require no regulatory framework or governmental recognition. Hopefully, the initiatives of leaders in educational organizations will help to continue building bridges across borders and creating new joint international programs based on mutual recognition without the need for support from UK or EU authorities.
Similarly, British universities will continue to participate in initiatives such as the Erasmus university exchange program, as well as in EU-funded research initiatives with non-UK universities.
The majority of British academics may have opposed Brexit, but now it is a reality. I believe they will step forward to play their role in helping heal the divisions the referendum campaign created, while continuing to provide a clear voice in promoting diversity, tolerance and an international outlook that will help the United Kingdom retain its position as one of the most welcoming destinations for global talent.