Brexit would have a great impact on universities, and not just the British: universities across Europe could be affected when the UK leaves the EU.
During the campaign prior to the Brexit referendum, a majority of higher education stakeholders, including 103 university presidents, 56% of university students and also Jo Johnson, former British education secretary – and brother of Boris Johnson, conservative critic of Prime Minister May- expressed her preference to remain in the European Union (EU).
Two years later, most academics still confirm their pro-EU position and hope that, whatever happens, the UK will not disconnect from the continent. Understandably, the uncertainty and the probable negative consequences, particularly if there is no agreement, will generate detriments for British universities. On the other hand, it can not be thought in terms of zero-sum game, because the damages for British universities would not necessarily benefit other universities in the Continent, as some mistakenly believe.
It can be expected, first of all, that the number of EU paying students in the United Kingdom will fall significantly, even taking into account the depreciation of the pound sterling, which would translate into a decline in the price of tuition, as well as in housing and maintenance expenses.
Currently, there are more than 450,000 foreign students studying at universities in the United Kingdom, which represents an income for the British GDP of around 14,000 million pounds and an impact of more than 20,000 jobs. The fundamental reason for this fall is the concern among EU students to obtain work visas after their graduation in the UK, which are currently not required.
The impact on the most prestigious British universities will probably be minimal. However, universities with less reputation will have to face difficulties and consider the possibility of merging with other educational institutions or create alliances or consortia to gain economies of scale and improve their attraction and international exposure. Private universities, although a minority in the United Kingdom, depend mostly on international students and will be the most affected.
At the same time, exchange programs between EU and UK universities, as well as double degrees and joint degrees, will not be affected, regardless of the Brexit agreement adopted, since they are private agreements.
Regarding the attraction of the academic faculty, we will also see a significant fall in the number of applications from EU professionals, for teaching and research positions in universities in the United Kingdom, as a result of the uncertainty about the need for work visas.
Other interested parties fear the unwanted xenophobic environment created by the brexiteers. However, this recess will be offset by an increase in requests from non-EU countries.
Bad times for research funds
Research funds will also be affected. In the long term, academics in the United Kingdom will have to withdraw from research cooperation projects between European universities, which are part of the EU budget.
The ongoing projects sponsored by the Horizon 2020 program will not be affected and will continue until their conclusion.
At the same time, given the quality of the research carried out in UK universities, it is very likely that their counterparts in the EU will continue to rely on them for joint research initiatives. A major consequence may be that British universities lose leadership in these projects.
We can also expect budget cuts and postponement of investment plans in universities in the United Kingdom. The predicted slowdown in the British economy after the possible Brexit will probably bring lower spending on education by the government. This could cause some universities in the country to increase their tuition fees. However, most university presidents have expressed their willingness to apply the same tuition fee for students from both the UK and the EU.
But even taking into account the – previously mentioned – negative consequences during the next few years, I think the situation will stabilize in the long term.
The two most important reasons for this are:
- First, pragmatism will prevail. Currently, everyone has doubts on the solution that the British Parliament will adopt, and on whether it will be endorsed by the EU and its member states. However, my intuition is that the most likely outcome will be to maintain the status quo in education and research, two much less controversial areas than trade and immigration.
- Second, higher education is now a global sector. This process of globalization is irreversible, given the international integration of educational practices, the impact of technology and the free flow of exchange of people and ideas. British universities play a fundamental role in this scenario of global education, a scenario in which the lingua franca is, of course, English.
Regardless of the institutional and regulatory model adopted, the current relationships between universities will continue. In addition, in many cases, these relationships are based on bilateral or multilateral agreements between different universities and do not require a regulatory framework or government recognition.
It is desirable that leaders’ initiatives in educational organizations continue building bridges across borders and creating new international collaborative programs based on mutual recognition without the need for support from the UK or the EU authorities.