Like British businesses, British universities need to look outside Europe as they plan for the post-Brexit future. Remember that, in world terms, EU universities are not strong performers. If you look at the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial are in the Top 10. UCL, LSE and Edinburgh – plus ETH Zurich and the University of Singapore – are all ranked more highly than the first EU university, the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, which comes in at number 28. On narrower Research Citation rankings, Oxford, Cambridge, UCL and Imperial again do very well. While the Americans predictably dominate, Canadian and Japanese universities also perform well, while the highest EU ranking university is 34th.
UK higher education institutions have rather more in common with the entrepreneurial universities of the USA, Australia, Canada and New Zealand than they do with many of EU counterparts. The vast majority of the EU27 countries’ universities are funded almost entirely by the state, with little private funding and considerable government control.
They have resisted opening up the EU to competition from universities abroad – for instance when there was an opportunity more than a decade ago to boost trade in higher education via the General Agreement on Trade in Services, associated with the WTO’s Doha Round, the EU demurred. By contrast the Anglophone universities are much more market-oriented and, like the universities of Japan, Korea and several other Asian economies have a large share of private funding. This usually means that their systems have a more marked student focus and less rigid academic hierarchy than is the case in some EU countries.
Furthermore the UK has more overseas students than any European university system, and also has around 600,000 students taking UK university qualifications in their own countries under franchise or partnership arrangements. So we already have a massive involvement in the world outside Europe: we are not going into unknown territory.
Rather than UK universities putting all their efforts into pressuring our government into a ‘soft HE Brexit’, we should take this opportunity to have a serious rethink about where we want to go in future.
Here are four suggestions for further boosting the internationalisation of our universities:
First, with EU students now faced with the same much higher fees as other overseas students, we should think about whether universities can justify charging any overseas students the sort of markup we currently charge them over the fees that UK students face. We are not transparent about why one undergraduate student pays 40% more than the one sitting next to her. All UK universities do this, operating an implicit cartel which ought to be investigated by the competition authorities. If we are still too addicted to having our students partly supported by overseas students who are often much poorer than them, perhaps we can persuade the government to use some of the ridiculous amount of overseas aid we are committed to providing every year under the ‘0.7% of GDP’ rule, to help poorer students in the developing world meet our fees. It would arguably be a better use of the money than the huge consultant fees and corrupt projects that DFID currently bankrolls.
Second, in trying to persuade the government to plug possible holes in research funding left by Brexit, we should ensure that any such extra funding be available to promote research collaborations anywhere in the world rather than simply with EU partners. More fundamentally, this is a good opportunity to think more radically about research funding. Do we need to spend as much? Should we continue with the dual system? Do we really need the cumbersome and never-ending circus of the Research Excellence Framework? Now is a very good time to debate this and try to think what place we want research to have in the sector in the years ahead, rather than simply shelling out more government money to offset falls in EU funding.
Third, if we want to boost student mobility, and if we must continue for the time being with the current student loan system (although there are better alternatives), we should allow young people to take out student loans for study abroad, as some smaller countries do. At the moment only 25,000 UK students are studying for degrees in other countries: there should probably be many more. As for short-term mobility, while continuing to be involved in Erasmus networks, we must ensure that universities make equivalent funding streams available to support exchange periods in a wider range of countries.
Fourth, while we should certainly ensure that existing non-UK EU nationals have continued rights to live and work in the UK, in future newcomers should have to compete on equal terms with academics from the rest of the world. Whatever immigration restrictions we operate on highly skilled labour (and I hope they will not be too onerous), they should apply equally to all. We should not be in the position where we take weaker applicants for jobs from Italy or Greece rather than stronger ones from Canada or India.
In conclusion, I do not believe Brexit will be anything like as bad for UK universities as many currently fear. There will be problems, but we need to react by looking outwards and thinking of new ways of doing things, rather than simply attempting to stave off the change which the country voted for.