22 Jun 2016

The international educator’s guide to the Brexit debate

BrexitA 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.

  • David Roberts

    Whilst it is true that there is not very much good news for UK universities in the vote to LEAVE there is more than a little editorialising going on in this piece which reads like a REMAIN press release. The idea that the UK could fund the research funding gap has not been discredited in the UK media just in the media that one would expect to take that view. It was a clearly made “promise” and the electorate including those that voted to leave will monitor subsequent action in this regard very closely. The difficulty is that those making the claim may not actually be in, or leading, the government, so may not have the authority to implement. There is credible academic research showing that the UK higher education sector is actually over exposed to partnerships within Europe, a picture encouraged by the lure of funding for collaborative projects. The UK is underplaying its hand in partnering world class HEIs in Asia and North America. Just as in trade between the EU and the UK where the evidence clearly shows that the EU has more to lose from not trading with us or making trading more problematic, so in science research the UK has won a major share of funding it is claimed because of its quality. This suggests that productive partnerships ought to continue to be funded for mutual benefit – we shall see. The Knowledge Partnership is currently undertaking research on the EU student market for a syndicate of UK universities. The EU had become an attractive market because of the lifting of the cap in student numbers in England. Universities can recruit as many EU students as they like, but this was subject to a subsidy from the UK taxpayer in the form of student loans and a fee level on par with that paid by local students. Many UK universities claim this rate (£9,000 per year) is actually at a rate that results in a full cost financial loss per student. Universities also have no exposure to the risks of EU students defaulting on loan repayments – that falls to the treasury i.e. the taxpayer. The research by Essex (funded by not delivered by the ESRC as the editorial item suggests) shows what universities have known for some time – EU students that come to the UK do well and add value to the whole campus experience. These students currently have lots of options as to where to study in Europe, most of which are much cheaper than the UK, albeit with a loan system. With good education and employment outcomes from studying in the UK maybe they will choose to continue to study here. The key issue is whether they will get foiled by unhelpful visa barriers such as those imposed on international students from wider afield. We can only hope that the new leadership in the UK sees more sense on this issue. Erasmus pre dates UK membership of the EU and as 8 European students come to the UK for every 1 that travels in the other direction, once again the EU and its students would be the losers if this arrangement ends or is curtailed. Leading scholars will be welcomed in the UK; they are exactly the type of workers that the Brexit campaign was highlighting as a form of positive immigration, with much reference to an Australian points system. The bigger question is whether they will want to come to the UK. The Knowledge Partnership recently undertook research on the mobility of international scholars for our W100 group – universities at the head of the world rankings. These individuals are driven by prestige, by the opportunities to develop their research, the sound financial base of the host university, the strength of the research team and other practical matters. There may be a psychological impact from the Brexit vote in the short term but the flow of scholarly talent in the longer term will be driven by whether UK universities have the global research links and the core funding to provide the right opportunities. EU funding loss and possible replacement issues may play some part in this outcome. REMAIN did apparently appeal to the younger generation but sadly most did not vote (70% of the 18-24 age group did not vote according to latest data). Were they actually too apathetic on this major issue to vote or does social media exaggerate youthful support for many issues and the strength and depth of feeling? The older generation, with more experience of of the EU over several decades voted on balance to LEAVE. I have researched the interests of UK university applicants and students with regard to international interests and yes they are globally concerned and engaged but if one asks about the relative appeal of having study or work experience in Europe or say New Zealand or Asia or North America, Europe fares badly as an option. Language proficiency places a part for sure but perhaps this is also to some degree a reflection of them having a truly global view and less a narrow European one? What should we hope for? First, that there is a measured debate from all sides. Second, that we all need to recognise the future is to be made it is not predetermined. Things work if everyone wants them to and makes the appropriate effort. Third, we must all respect the purest form of democracy and avoid the ugly temptation to label those that voted LEAVE as ignorant or ill informed. In other circumstances these same votes are received with thanks. Fourth, we need politicians to reflect that the vote was close. I voted to LEAVE for reasons of democracy but would be happy to be in a single market with free movement of people as now; others, however, would not. My last plea is that universities need to wake up and play a much stronger role in civic society here in the UK. Universities appeared to be lobbying purely on self-interest and not playing their full part in enlightening and enlivening the debate. Universities appear too remote and divorced from the lives of many citizens (here in the UK we are actually subjects not citizens but that is another debate…) many of whom fund them through their tax. It is not only the UK politicians that need to reconnect with large parts of the population!

    David Roberts MD The Knowledge Partnership and EAIE Member

    • Thank you for sharing your views on this, David. We are very interested in the different perspectives from international educators in Europe and beyond.