Higher education: Global Britain needs Europe

Seat of learning: the EU has been central in providing funding to UK higher education. Credit: Stokkete/Shutterstock

Almost four out of five leaders in the fields of education, arts, science and culture across 13 nations believe the UK’s exit from the EU will have a negative impact on their sector, the British Council’s Jo Beall writes.

Representatives of universities – student organisations and others engaged with higher education, research and international scholarly mobility – last month gave evidence to the House of Commons education select committee’s inquiry into the impact of the Brexit vote on higher education.

The evidence submitted to the committee by the British Council stated that the United Kingdom (UK) higher education sector has an excellent international reputation and thriving global connections. Along with others, we pointed out that the European Union (EU) has been central in providing funding to higher education through promoting student and scholar mobility and supporting international research collaboration. UK higher education institutions have benefited disproportionately from this due to the high quality and standards of our sector, and UK students taking advantage of the international opportunities offered by programmes such as Erasmus Plus are better prepared to participate and compete globally.

The British Council also argued that our standing in higher education and research could be severely and irreparably threatened if the Brexit negotiations were to be clumsily handled, particularly as they come in the wake of recent changes to study and post-study work visa regulations, which have fostered perceptions internationally that the UK is not welcoming to international students, academics and researchers.

For example, the 2016 International Student Survey (ISS) by Hobsons Solutions found that 43 per cent of prospective students felt Brexit had affected their inclination to study in the UK, with 83 per cent of those saying it had made them less likely to want to study in Britain.

To secure an open and intelligent Brexit we need to maintain our professional connections with the people and societies of Europe and need to be seen to be doing so.

In November last year the BBC also reported that the Open Doors Data 2015-16 figures showed that the number of Indian students studying in the United States (US) had soared by 25 per cent to a record high, contributing more than £4.4 billion to the economy at a time “of steep decline in Indian students opting for the UK, with one estimate citing a 50 per cent drop in four years”. It is difficult to recover from the loss of such markets.

In order to understand the attitudes and aspirations of young people towards the United Kingdom the British Council undertakes longitudinal research across the G20 industrialised countries. We repeated this study in 2016, immediately before the June referendum and then again three months later. A significant majority of young people knew about the referendum and the Brexit vote but, apart from those in the European G20 countries, very few registered any change in their views towards the UK, although they did indicate less interest in studying in Britain. By contrast, young people in the European G20 countries – such as France, Italy and Germany – demonstrated a change of attitude and this was more negative.

In February of this year the British Council undertook a survey of more than 30 leaders from the education, arts, science and cultural sectors from across 13 European countries. They were asked about the impact of the UK’s departure from the EU on their sectors: 78 per cent said it would be negative; 70 per cent said the impact would be significant; and 86 per cent said they believed their institutions could play a role in shaping or informing the outcome of the EU-UK settlement for their sector.

What these two surveys tell us is first, people in Europe are concerned, anxious or angry about Brexit and second, that our fellow professionals in the educational and cultural sectors in EU member states are open and willing to work constructively with us. Solutions that were presented ranged from more sector networking, to seeking a bespoke deal for these sectors, to ensuring institutions become active platforms for positive change. To secure an open and intelligent Brexit we need to maintain our professional connections with the people and societies of Europe and need to be seen to be doing so.

We need to keep channels open with Europe and ensure continued ease of movement for students, academics and cultural professionals. In research we need to increase cultural, educational and scientific partnerships. Some EU funding instruments are open to non-EU members – for example the European Space Agency and CERN – but we also need to continue bidding for research funding under Horizon 2020. We are still members of the European Union and we contribute to those funds but, more importantly, we need to demonstrate to our European partners that we want to continue collaborating with them. The relationships we forge during the Brexit process will be critical in ensuring that we remain desired partners in cross-border scientific and higher education co-operation in Europe, they are essential to maintaining and strengthening the UK’s reputation for research and innovation.

For 80 years the British Council has actively and assiduously used Britain’s cultural and educational resources to extend the UK’s international influence and ensure strong connections with educational and cultural leaders, policy makers and influencers globally. There is growing evidence that such efforts build strong relationships for the UK and also create the conditions under which trade and investment can flourish.

Our research on international higher education trends tells us that student mobility is becoming increasingly regionalised, with Latin American students and scholars choosing to study in the US and Canada and south-east Asian students choosing Australia as their English-speaking study destination. To ignore the importance of the European market to UK higher education would be short-sighted and self-defeating.

But building relationships of trust and friendship within Europe is only one side of the coin. Persuasion and advocacy within the UK is the other. The higher education and research sectors must help ensure a Brexit transition that will reassure our European partners that we are not “Little Britain”. Aspiring towards a more Global Britain or greater ties with the Commonwealth cannot be at the expense of Europe. How we conduct ourselves in future months and years will have a lasting impact on our international standing and the future status of UK higher education and science.