students walking
Students between lectures ©

Mat Wright, British Council (adapted from the original).

November 2016

In the third of our series of articles on the impact of Brexit, Jo Beall, Director of Education & Society at the British Council, explores the implications of the vote on British Higher Education, and suggests what can be done to protect a vital sector for the UK’s prosperity and international influence.

During the Renaissance, Erasmus, the great Dutch catholic humanist and author of the Praise of Folly, was one of the most significant examples of academic mobility in the history of Europe.  His legacy is celebrated through the EU’s Erasmus exchange programme, of which the UK is a major beneficiary, with more than 200,000 British students and staff involved to date.  However, the decision to leave the EU creates uncertainty about British membership of this scheme after 2019, and has important ramifications for academic and student mobility well beyond the Erasmus programme.  

It is imperative that we reflect on the many tangible and intangible benefits to Britain that derive from our incomparable Higher Education system and its global reach.  We must avoid taking policy steps that would undermine the very large economic and ‘soft power’ benefits that derive directly from it. Oxford is the world’s ‘leading’ university in 2016/17 (and two more, Cambridge and Imperial, feature in the world’s top ten)  in large part because they are a very competitive part of an intensely international system from which they benefit disproportionately – as does the rest of the UK’s Higher Education sector. Cutting off the blood-supply to this extraordinary ‘national brain’ would be disastrous. Not just because of the losses, intellectual and economic, that would impoverish the universities themselves; but because the research and innovation which they sustain, and the culture of global intellectual cross-fertilisation that they embrace are both absolutely central to our broader national prosperity.

The UK is the world’s most recommended English-speaking destination amongst international undergraduate students.  The sector is extremely international, with 28% of academic staff (some 74,000 people), 15% of undergraduates, and 58% of full time postgraduate students (12% of which are from the EU) at British universities coming from outside the UK.  In terms of absolute numbers, there are around 110,000 EU students in the UK, compared to around 90,000 from China. A report from Universities UK in 2014 estimated the total value to the UK’s economy generated by non-British students at £10.7bn, including tuition fees and living expenses.  EU students alone contributed £3.7bn and supported over 34,000 jobs.

Students from the EU currently pay ‘home’ fees for UK university courses and have access to UK’s student financial support mechanisms. Students from outside the EU pay significantly more for their studies and do not have access to this support. If the current arrangements changed, EU students might have to pay full fees.  Whilst this would increase the financial benefit to the UK per student, it might very well also mean that a large number of EU students chose not to study in the UK at all, with a serious negative impact on the British sector and conversely, a boost to those of its competitors in the EU. It could well also affect the fee levels of British students wishing to study for all or part of their degrees in EU countries.

Restricting the flow of students to the UK is not in the interests of the wider UK economy.

Restricting the flow of students to the UK is not in the interests of the wider UK economy. Universities play a central role in internationalising their regions, and British university towns derive huge economic benefit from the spending and employment generated by these students.  The British Government estimates that education ‘exports’ (including income from research grants, spending in the UK and tuition fees) are worth £17.5bn to the UK economy. 

The British Council has commissioned a detailed analysis of how the UK’s current access to EU funding in the education and research sectors may be affected by Brexit, including the potential consequences for the political influence of UK institutions in those sectors. The report, produced by Schuman Associates, focuses on the financial impact for the UK and the challenges facing British institutions in influencing outcomes of Brexit negotiations in these sectors.  

The UK’s higher education sector is also one of the country’s strongest soft power assets. International students and those who have worked in the UK are more likely to trust British people, to want to visit the UK and to want to do business with British companies after graduation. 

Our higher education sector could experience very negative consequences in a departure from the EU if the risks are not mitigated – with a consequent impact on the British economy. One complexity in the policy debate is that international students are currently counted in official British net migration statistics.  The political pressure to reduce net migration has fed through into policy and messaging about overseas students.  

Present visa regulations, along with negative media coverage are already contributing to sharp drops in the numbers of overseas applicants to British universities from some key countries. Over the last four years the number of Indian students studying in the UK has dropped by around 50%, with a large rise in Indians studying in the US. This represents an estimated gain to the US economy of £4.4 billion (and perhaps a broadly similar loss to the UK).  Recent suggestions of further tightening in student visa policies, together with uncertainty about post-Brexit mobility between the UK and Europe, are generating real concern amongst university staff, researchers, and current and prospective students. 

At the same time, a recent survey of British public perceptions by Universities UK revealed that most of the general public do not see international students as ‘immigrants’:  75% of those asked welcomed current or increased numbers and 91% thought students should be allowed to stay in the UK to work after graduation.  

The weaker pound now makes the UK a more attractive study destination to price sensitive markets.  However, relying on this boost may prove to be short-termist.  There is a longer-term trend for growth in international student and talent recruitment by the UK’s traditional competitors including the US, Canada, Australia, and European countries.  Ireland, which recently launched a new international higher education strategy, already has an English-speaking HE sector, whilst others are increasingly teaching in English, especially at post-graduate level.  The threat to the UK’s current pre-eminence is clear. 

British Universities are responding to these challenges.  Many are implementing internationalisation strategies.  These include trans-national education initiatives, teaching overseas via digital courses and branch campuses, as well as undertaking the business of attracting talent to the UK.  The University of Sheffield has, for example, initiated the ‘#weareinternational’ campaign, which promotes the UK as welcoming, internationally-facing and ‘open for business’.

Globally, intra-regional mobility is becoming more important: growing numbers of internationally mobile students, are partially offset by a rise in study in countries close to home. This will create further risks for the UK, where the largest number of international students are from China, as they may in future opt increasingly for higher education within their region. More students from Latin America will study in the US, students from ASEAN countries in Malaysia, students from African countries will study in South Africa and so on.  So UK turning its back on Europe would be bucking international trends and at our cost.

A recent British Council Student Insight survey found that, as well as a desire for high quality education, students considering international study value the chance to develop their English, to experience a new culture, and to enhance their CVs by working. The UK currently enjoys clear advantages in all but the last, as opportunities for work experience during and after their studies are severely limited by current visa regulations.

To protect the UK’s HE sector in the light of Brexit and changing international trends, important steps should be considered. They include setting out the positive case for the universities’ contribution to the economic success and global influence of the country; explaining how universities play a vital role in supporting Government and employers in the spheres of employment, growth, exports, innovation, inward investment, social cohesion, diplomacy, and international partnerships; and setting out a new industrial strategy for higher education and research that recognises higher education as an export and puts in place the policies required to protect and grow numbers of talented international students.     

setting out the positive case for the universities’ contribution to the economic success and global influence of the country

If British universities are to continue to contribute to the success of our economy and play a role in creating a more ‘global Britain’, the UK will need to take steps to continue to attract international talent from the EU and beyond; to continue to allow international collaborations and movement of students, researchers, and staff; and to protect or replace existing EU funding and programmes for research and higher education - including the Erasmus Plus scheme.

Leaving the EU will present opportunities as well as challenges for a sector which, with the right support, can be an increasingly powerful aspect of British prosperity and influence.  Continued British access to the Erasmus Plus programme is vital - and perhaps a similar British scheme might also be introduced with a global reach, named for Erasmus’s English friend Thomas More.  If the right agreements are not reached and actions taken, however, there is a risk that the British education sector will lose its European and international pre-eminence and with it the benefits that currently flow from that. That would be Folly indeed.

Jo Beall, Director Education and Society, and Alasdair Donaldson, Insight Editor, British Council

See also