Perspectives

At the heart of the HE mission: students, research and talent during Brexit

The decision has been taken. The UK will leave the European Union. And like many things about ‘Brexit’, its impact on higher education is still uncertain and that uncertainty is already affecting the sector.

Brexit will very likely change the way in which our universities access European students, fund research and attract talent; the three things which are at the heart of every institutional mission. Deloitte’s global education team has outlined some key considerations in these three areas, which UK universities should start planning in order to be best placed to influence the debate and flourish post-Brexit, no-matter how the future unfolds.

Student recruitment: Reinvesting in Europe

Like many mature higher education sectors, international students are an important source of income and diversity for universities. Over a quarter of all international students currently at UK institutions, around 125,000, come from the EU.

While nothing is certain, future Brexit arrangements will significantly change how European students access UK universities in such numbers. This will certainly be true if you do not anticipate a continuation of the policy that sees European students being able to access university places at the same cost as domestic students.

That said, our world-class institutions will, no doubt, continue to attract a considerable number of talented European students, and the current cohort of students will not disappear overnight.

Interestingly, one change, which may help offset the financial impact of this situation, is that some universities could see a net rise in income if EU students will once again have to pay higher international student fees. Generally, however, a reduced pool of potential EU students for UK institutions is likely to be more of a challenge than a blessing. We are already hearing examples of how universities are scenario planning to look at how a reduction in access to EU students in some parts of the sector might have a knock on impact on the ability to recruit domestically elsewhere.

Securing a similar level of diversity and income for our universities post-Brexit will need a joint response from both government and institutions.

Universities should move quickly and use the period before Brexit to expand or establish an extensive range of exchange and partnering opportunities with European institutions. This seems an obvious and cost effective way of keeping diversity in the student population, no matter the eventual Brexit arrangements.

Pragmatically, while uncertainty remains, universities may need to look beyond the EU and increase international student numbers from other sources to fill any anticipated shortfall. The UK currently hosts over 300,000 students from non-EU countries, a figure that has increased by a third since 2007, according to HESA. And while the costs of recruiting these students may be higher, institutions should be moving promptly to signal to this market that Brexit may represent a golden opportunity for those students to access additional international places, helped by a weaker pound.

For many institutions, rethinking their international offer in the context of global collaborations not just by bringing students to campuses in the UK but also through the development of new and existing campuses and partnerships overseas to secure revenue streams and global networks.

Beyond institutions maximising their attractiveness to the international student market, government can assist the sector by seriously reconsidering how international students are treated as part of the immigration puzzle.

The most obviously change that would assist, is to separate students from the general immigration pool, and treat them as a valuable source of revenue and talent like other education destinations, such as Australia.

To truly assist the sector, government should not be afraid to innovate and create a huge competitive advantage for the sector. One such proposal would be to create new immigration pathways for residency and citizenship for those international students who attend and succeed at our institutions.

This would not only make the UK the most progressive international education destination, but the most attractive in the developed world. In addition to attracting the world’s best and brightest students to the UK economy, it would clearly show the world we are serious about the UK remaining a world-class education destination.

The opportunity to create some certainly around the role of the Office for Students in relation to the international student experience and access to UK HE should be an important part of their remit as the HE Bill makes its way through parliament.

Research funding: collaborating more closely with industry to close the gap

Leaving the EU will reduce available sources of funding for UK universities, particularly with regard to research. Dozens of expert voices in the sector have already issued this warning and is already evidenced by examples of UK institutions being excluded from research collaborations in the last few weeks.

Although joint research efforts with EU institutions may allow continued access to European research funds – like the Horizon 2020 initiative – it is almost certain that universities will need to find alternative sources of income to remain leading research and innovation hubs.

The government has to play a central role in this process, and the case should be made that funds saved by not contributing to the EU should be invested in research. It can be strongly advocated that this investment would not be ‘dead money’, but rather such research in our universities has been proven to produce unforeseen dividends, contribute to the economic growth we need and frequently has a multiplier effect at home and abroad.

Further, institutions themselves must move beyond government funding and closely collaborate with industry to jointly fund research or indeed, commercialise breakthroughs that have already been uncovered. This will require a profound change in how universities conduct their research operations and engage with the business community.

Reforms underway to the research landscape in the UK will need to take account of the new environment and the opportunity to create world class research council investment hubs and research centres of excellence in medical research, high tech engineering and technology alongside other disciplines that will drive economic growth and productivity will be critical.

Teaching and research talent: looking beyond Europe

Crucial to all of this and to sustaining our world-class institutions requires hiring the best talent. International academic talent is hotly contested and, like attracting international students, universities will need to innovate in order to compensate for the expected restrictions post-Brexit.

The existing EU arrangements mean that UK universities hire European faculty and collaborate more strongly within Europe. According to HESA, in 2014-15 the UK hosted 31,530 research and teaching staff from EU countries – 35 per cent more than from non-EU countries (23,300). Likewise, 46 per cent of internationally co-authored publications in 2012 in the UK were published with EU researchers (Universities UK).

In the short term these links will remain, however, it seems prudent for UK institutions to assess whether their ties beyond Europe are as strong as possible, and if not, what new collaboration or recruitment arrangements need to be put in place to see that an fair share of international talent comes to the UK. Again, government should be bold in easing the administrative burden on institutions fighting for this talent.

Conclusion

The UK has some of the greatest minds working at its universities, and the UK education system is well positioned as one of the world’s best. More than ever Government can play a critical role in supporting the UK HE sector as a welcoming place for staff and students to participate in life enhancing programmes and research. The HE Bill has the potential to provide real clarity and some stability in a very volatile and uncertain time for our most important and one of our biggest export sectors and it must not fail. If our institutions work closely with government to focus on the three core elements, which lie at the heart of their mission, there is cause for quiet confidence that the sector will continue to prosper in coming years.

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