Higher Education at risk post-Brexit

The Chilcot report and the shambles since the Brexit vote are just the latest testament to an endemic lack of planning by UK governments to prepare for the aftermath of seismic events. With regard to a possible ‘Leave’ vote in the EU referendum, many organisations have fallen into a similar trap. Only 10 % of organisations had contingency plans in place, according to CIPD research. In a way this is understandable since there was a widespread belief across most sectors that common sense would prevail given the strong economic case for Remain. Very few pollsters foresaw that the slight majority would vote in favour of Brexit. 

The consequences for various industries are likely to be dire, especially since, for the time being at least, the newly disenfranchised appear to have no coordinated voice. However, Brexit it is and we need to prepare for it, including planning for what pessimists might call the ‘least worst’ outcomes and for any potential silver linings in what seems a pretty impenetrable black cloud. An Agricultural show in the south-east, addressed by an EU Agriculture spokesman, suggests that many farmers are only just waking up to the enormity of the financial challenge they will face once the EU subsidies stop – and the potential implosion of horticultural businesses which have relied heavily on seasonal workers from the EU to pick crops since locals will not do the work. 

Higher Education (HE) in particular is likely to be at significant risk in a UK which has ‘reclaimed its borders’. So what? Nigel Farage might ask. After all, universities are likely to be full of ‘Remainers’ who can look beyond the blandishments of demagogues to understand the risks and damaging consequences of Brexit to UK plc. Indeed, in an earlier generation, Margaret Thatcher attempted to hobble universities and the BBC since they were potential sources of criticism of government policies. Moves to silence critics and win popular support based on spurious ‘evidence’, celebrity endorsement and the desire of media moguls to use their influence have continued to this day. In such a context, universities are unlikely to get much attention from politicians. Unlike in France, Germany and elsewhere in the EU, the UK popular rhetoric is profoundly anti-intellectual, reflected in former Education Secretary Michael Gove’s Brexit campaign appeal to voters to ignore the experts and vote as their hearts told them. And universities are full of experts. 

Yet higher education is a global ‘industry’ in which the UK is a leading player. Against a highly competitive backdrop, British universities have been an unsung success story over the last twenty years. A number of UK universities regularly feature in the top international rankings of various league tables - for research, student satisfaction and so on- making the UK a destination of choice for students and staff from around the world. As a manifestation of the knowledge economy in action, British-led research is helping advance the science that underpins a vast array of new medical treatments and technological developments. Higher education has also made a huge contribution to UK GDP at a time when central government funding for universities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland has dwindled to a trickle. 

To make up the shortfall, Universities have had to be resourceful, charging student fees (apart from in Scotland) and seeking to attract international students by offering a high quality student experience and access to some of the best brains in the world. Universities have learned to be flexible as government policy flexes. The British Government-imposed cap on overseas students from beyond the EU, caused many universities for whom this was their primary source of income, to seek to recruit from within the EU instead. Today 5 percent of students at UK universities, and 15 percent of academic staff, come from other EU countries. 

Looking ahead to next year’s student recruiting round, the ongoing uncertainty regarding freedom of movement is likely to lead to a considerable shortfall in EU student applications. Already, various EU member countries are planning to ‘poach’ UK students by offering them temporary citizenship to encourage them to study in France, Germany and elsewhere, where they can continue to benefit from the more open-minded and cosmopolitan environment and approach to learning that Britain may be about to lose.

Still, ‘so what?’ Farage, the now former Leader of UKIP might continue to ask, having recently stepped down after achieving his dream of getting the UK out of Europe. (Apparently there was no plan for what might happen if Brexit prevailed). Well, if one looks at the student £, the benefits of student spending go way beyond the university itself, with students spending millions of pounds in their various local communities. If universities are unable to attract and retain the students needed to keep them solvent, the consequences in terms of university consolidation, closure and job losses, are likely to be highly damaging to the financial health of the communities around them. 

Increasing spending on the NHS was one of the promises of the Brexit campaigners. Yet much of the scientific research underpinning medical breakthroughs and new drugs is being developed by UK researchers, working collaboratively with other leading experts from EU institutions. A Universities UK analysis found that the country’s universities received more than £836 million (more than $1.2 billion) in EU research grants and contracts in 2014-15, representing 14.2 percent of all UK income from research grants and contracts that year. Given Brexit, gaining access to research funding to continue such work is likely to become extremely problematic. Not surprisingly, the best researchers are likely to follow funding streams and move to other EU countries or elsewhere, creating a latter-day brain drain which the UK can ill afford. Thus the Brexit vote is likely to have negative consequences for the very people who expect the NHS to come up with new answers to their health problems.

Small businesses too are likely to suffer. While current funding streams will continue for the present, as the UK begins its exit process, universities and SMEs will no longer be eligible for EU funding and research proposals including UK researchers may be excluded. Horizon 2020 is the new research and innovation stream within the new European funding programme 2014-2020. The fund is relevant to SMEs specialising in research fields such as ICT, Bioinformatics, nanotechnology, design innovation etc. The fund provides access to a total budget of €71 bn. SMEs, Universities and research institutes are eligible to apply either individually or collectively, with UK or European partners. In theory there is up to €3m available per SME. In the de-industrialised towns of England and Wales there is a crying need for vibrant new industries to be developed that are fit to survive and thrive in today’s global business environment. 

Similarly, universities have the potential to help improve the UK’s woeful productivity record through the Catapult programme set up by Innovate UK (previously the Technology Strategy Board) that promotes research and development, innovation through business led collaboration between scientists, engineers and market opportunities. Each Catapult centre is expected to raise funds equally from three sources: business-funded R&D contracts; collaborative applied R&D projects from UK and Europe (H2020), funded jointly by the public and private sectors, also won competitively; and core UK public funding. Whether the UK government will make up the funding shortfall is questionable.

So as the UK closes the door on the EU, it will be interesting to see what other new opportunities will emerge to fill the void for business, as promised by the Brexit campaigners, if we are to avoid the overall UK economy ‘levelling down’ to a common weak economic platform, the likelihood of which is now perhaps more widely recognised. Let’s hope the Brexiteer claims are based on a more solid set of evidence than has been supplied so far.

For universities themselves, perhaps the biggest challenge in the immediate future is retaining, and continuing to attract, leading EU scholars to work at UK universities. Though the process of unravelling our EU links could take years, the uncertainties surrounding the rights of EU workers to work in post-Brexit Britain are having an immediate and damaging impact, with Brand UK instantly blighted. In one example, just a fortnight before the Brexit vote, a major School in one of our leading universities had finally managed to appoint four leading scholars from elsewhere in the EU to vital posts. By the following Monday, three out of the four successful candidates had withdrawn, citing uncertainty following the Brexit vote as the reason for withdrawing. At the same university, a German academic who is a world leader in his field, and who has built a thriving department, is considering his position after living and contributing happily in the UK for the past eight years. Much of the Brexit campaign rhetoric and populist response has made him feel increasingly an unwelcome intruder. Without the best staff, universities are unlikely to be able to attract either students or research funding, wherever that may now be found. 

This puts the importance of doing some rapid and flexible workforce planning now centre-stage. Scenarios will need to be constructed to allow for some assessment of the relative challenges and possible options available. HR practitioners in particular must avoid getting trapped with their finger in the dyke metaphorically speaking, dealing only with the likely immediate fall-out. They need also to be working with senior management to develop some flexible strategies with respect to talent that will enable a proactive approach to be taken to tackling the challenges. For instance, junior researchers usually develop their skills through being mobile, willing to move institution in order to work alongside experienced researchers in different contexts. What sorts of career and experience development routes can be found to counter the risk of a dumbed-down research base?

While snatching victory out of a national own goal may be very challenging, if UK universities are to maintain, or even improve their pre-Brexit position, new options around research funding must be found, new means of attracting students and the funding they bring must be identified. Above all, Vice Chancellors must work cohesively and exert their collective influence with politicians and new policy makers to ensure that the UK can once again become a vibrant employment hub for leading academics wherever they are to be found. This is absolutely in Great Britain’s national interest, whatever one thinks about the situation we now find ourselves in.

Posted by Linda Holbeche on July 10th 2016

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