The UK’s uneasy divorce from the European Union rumbles on, complex, messy, partisan and accusatory, and from different perspectives unwilling or overdue. What are the implications of Brexit for higher education (HE) or, as it’s been termed. ‘BrHExit’?
The headlines to this are that ‘we’ stand to lose out on three different levels:
- Our ability to attract EU research funding;
- Fewer students from across the EU;
- Inability to recruit or retain academics from other EU countries.
We still don’t know what the overall outcomes will be, and the long-term effects will still be unravelling decades from now, while the architects of the whole sorry mess are publishing lucrative memoirs from the comfort of their country piles. We could get back in, stay out under more or less favourable conditions, or be out and excluded entirely, and so on. The shorter term sees a vacuum of detail filled with uncertainty and conjecture, creating angst and hysteria across the political spectrum. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but we’re worried.
In UK HE in the nearer future, it is the universities at the top of the pile, those best-ranked (for what that tells us), who look to have the most to lose. They have, for some time, done the most/best research and garnered the most UK and international research money. This is a chicken-and-egg situation, as you need the money to do the work, and you can’t get it unless you’re good. If they lose access to that – and are in turn less able to attract the brightest scholars/researchers from overseas – then their stars begin to wane. This may also mean that they lose a great deal of prestige in international rankings and their potential future international students increasingly head elsewhere. (It makes it harder for British citizens to work/study elsewhere, too.)
This could then have a further negative impact on our image as a country because the strength/quality of ‘top’ universities is seen as crucial for the international marketing of ‘Brand UK’. The knock-on effect of lesser status (and potentially unfriendly student and work visas) could hit UK HE really hard. Much of the focus has been about the loss of (literally) billions of pounds of research and tuition fees and what foreign students spend while studying here. This is all undeniably true, but detracts from the greater social and academic loss in that we do less research, mixing with less people and sharing ideas less. Why did nobody mention culture, solidarity and collaboration in the referendum campaign?!!!
Not all universities are as invested in (or reliant on) international funds or students, but it’s more pressing the further up the league tables you go. This doesn’t mean, though, that ‘lesser’ institutions are insulated from the joys of BrHExit. It could mean that the top dogs focus even more of their appetites and capacities on the domestic market. One of the features of research funding in the UK is that there is an oligopoly, of a few major players dominating the scene: the ‘Golden Triangle’ (London, Oxford, Cambridge) gobbles up a huge proportion of the funding available. This is partly, as I’ve mentioned before, because they’re good at doing research, but also the biggest universities have teams of people who are expert at writing winning bids. This puts them at a double advantage, and the rest – elite or otherwise – might end up scrabbling over ever smaller crumbs.
In terms of students, one of the features of the past few years is that universities in the UK have been able to expand their admissions as much as they like, and the presence of high tuition fees has made this a more attractive option. Whether they have the capacity to house and effectively teach those students is one thing, but if they do increase that capacity and then quickly lose large chunks of their international students(20% or more), who’s going to fill those classrooms, labs and fancy new student flats? Are those big players simply going to cut their losses and offload talented staff and new facilities (that they took out long term loans on)? Maybe, but maybe not.
The ‘better’ universities are also more attractive to employers, and this in turn makes them more attractive to students who nowadays have to think about the best ways of paying off their enormous student loans. Employability is one measure of rankings, and self-fulfils as I’ve written about before. Compounding this issue further, there are signs that the number of people going to university might be shrinking. This is then exacerbated by the fact that there is due to be a growing presence of private, for-profit universities. They are looking to muscle in, maybe with shorter courses and lower fees, and will largely focus on professional courses where the costs are low and returns on fees for students are more obvious. The universities at the bottom find themselves in a bind, particularly in less obviously employable subjects such as Humanities and Social Sciences. Do they reduce the ‘prices’ of their degrees (which may not necessarily cost less to provide) to attract students, and/or relax access just to get enough bums on seats?
What may happen is that we start to see some universities ‘failing’ – closing down. This is unheard of in UK higher education, although the current government sees this as a ‘natural and healthy’ feature of markets. It may mean, though, that some areas lose what can be big local employers and access to certain (or even all) kinds of degree for their working class communities. If these are in the most disenfranchised areas – and populated by those who largely voted Leave – then social mobility in those areas may fall even further unless something is done to provide them with better opportunities.