The international educator’s guide to the Brexit debate

The international educator’s guide to the Brexit debate

A lot has been said about the 2016 United Kingdom European Union membership referendum taking place on 23 June. Both sides of this debate have addressed the impact that a potential Brexit would have on higher education. Heated discussions have transpired regarding EU student numbers, research and technology funding, and scholarly collaboration between EU and UK scholars. As a European association for international education, the EAIE has been paying close attention to these developments. In this blog post, some of the crucial debates and arguments pertaining to our field are outlined.

This is not the UK’s first vote on the issue of European (economic) integration. In 1975, just two years after joining, the UK held a plebiscite on its membership to the European Economic Community – an entity now fully absorbed into the European Union. Membership, then, was supported by a large majority of voters. After years of growing Euroscepticism and political tensions surrounding EU immigration, economic contributions to the Union and British sovereignty, the call for a new referendum was finally answered. UK Prime Minister David Cameron promised an EU membership referendum as part of his re-election campaign and, after renegotiating Britain’s position in the Union on key issues earlier this year, scheduled a date for the vote – 23 June.

For the higher education community, the effects of a ‘Brexit’ scenario could be rather rampant, both in the UK and the rest of Europe. A Times Higher Education poll among those working in the field in the UK showed that 88.5% of respondents would vote for the UK to remain in the Union. These are some of the most important discussions taking place with regards to higher education:

  1. Research funding

One of the primary issues in this discussion so far has been funding for research and higher education in general in the UK. The EU invests an average of €730 million a year on research and development in the UK – a good part of which is allocated to UK universities. UK universities have, by and large, supported the ‘remain’ side of the referendum debates. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that the UK Universities group has been running a ‘Universities for Europe’ campaign highlighting the many benefits of EU membership to UK society.

The ‘leave’ group has two main counterarguments in response to concerns about funding. First, they claim that the EU’s Horizon 2020 funding scheme for innovation does not expire until the year 2020, meaning that the UK will continue its funding of the programme – therefore giving UK universities access to this resource – until then. Second, they claim that without financial obligations to the EU, the UK would be in a better position to fund its own research. Both of these arguments have been discredited in the UK media, primarily from the perspective that there is simply no precedent to assure that either is true. If the Swiss experience is any indication of how quickly EU funding could be cut, there is definite reason for concern.

  1. EU students

There are approximately 125,000 EU students per year in the UK, representing, on average, approximately 5% of the total national student body. Beyond the income that these students generate in tuition fees alone, a recent analysis from the Economic and Social Research Council at the University of Essex has pointed to the long-term economic benefits of educating EU students. The study has shown that EU students are twice as likely as their UK peers to attain a ‘first class’ honours degree and far less likely to be unemployed after graduation. As for the Erasmus programme, the Swiss experience again offers a worrying example: they were excluded from Erasmus on the day after their own referendum voting to limit migration from the Union.

Anchored on EU policies, UK universities currently afford EU degree-seeking students identical tuition fees to those of domestic students. Moreover, some EU students have access to loans for the regular fees. The UK has recently embraced stricter rules on student visas – rules that could, if the ‘leave’ camp prevails, apply to EU students. Although the exact side-effects of a possible ‘Brexit’ to EU student numbers in the UK remain unknown, with higher tuition fees and stricter visa policies – and so much competition from the rest of the world – UK universities are understandably concerned with how attractive they will be to EU students in the international education market.

  1. European scholars

EU scholars make up around 15% of all scholars working in the UK – in prestigious universities, this number is closer to 20%. As with students, it is hard to gauge exactly what the effects will be. It is likely that for existing members of staff and current grant holders, the effects will not be immediately felt. Yet no such assurances exist about future pursuits. Securing academic positions cross-border may be a very different story in the case of a sudden ‘Brexit’.

  1. Internationalisation vs. nationalism

And of course no list on this issue would be complete without the overarching debate on globalisation and regional integration. Here, we see something of a generation gap. According to UK polls, the wish to remain in the Union is particularly true for a younger population of voters (aged 18–34). This is a population born and raised in the Union and whose study environment was very much internationalised. From access to Erasmus mobility to EU students at their home campus, it is not difficult to imagine why this age group is largely in favour of the ‘remain’ side. On the other hand, there has been a great upsurge of nationalism and Euroscepticism across Europe – and the UK is no exception. The battle between ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ has only exacerbated the existing divide in political views and aspirations for the country’s future.

The above list is far from complete, and we will only truly know the consequences of this vote for international higher education – both for UK universities and their partners – if the ‘leave’ camp prevails. The push for a ‘leave’ vote has generated a significant amount of distress in the higher education space, and it is clear from the evidence presented that these concerns are far from unfounded. This debate has shed a light on the fragility of the European dream, but also on the incredible importance of internationalised higher education for the advancement of human knowledge and society at large. For all of us, whatever the results of the vote, this has been a time to think critically about European interdependence, collaboration and the future that we all want to see in higher education.

Laura is Editorial Coordinator at the EAIE.