Brexit. Now what?

We were already in turbulent times- the asian market has gone “soft”, and uncapped recruitment means everyone is stealing everyone else’s students. And then Brexit. In this piece we look at some likely implications of Brexit and what to research and look out for in your own context as student officers start to attend meetings on the impacts for your institution.

Powerpoint: Some Brexit Thoughts


Direct recruitment of EU citizens
Uncertainty creates aversion to the UK- the visa regime might change, student support arrangements might change and in extreme cases, Universities could lose any or all of their EU students. Jo Johnson has reacted swiftly to assure incoming for 2016 EU students that the Students Loan Company will honour its commitments for the duration of their study ( For the future nothing is known. NUS and UUK will need to join the behind-the-scenes lobby to retain or improve current arrangements.

If this doesn’t work, HEIs will need to adjust financial plans to remove FTEs over the course of the Brexit. Even if it does work the UK may find itself a generally unattractive place to study depending on wider issues like travel.

Recruitment of International Students
Although some theories suggest that this area will be unaffected, there are bound to be impacts. Any decline in research output from academic feeling to the rest of Europe, or through the direct loss of EU research funding, will impact on global reputation and rankings. In addition for many courses in business and finance (where the Asian “miracle” was already coming unstuck) which depend on the UK being at the centre of the European trading bloc, will be harmed. Crucially international students like currency certainty- and no UK HEI is likely to be prepared to fix fees in home currencies. This is bound to impact on recruitment. Non-EU citizens have already been surveyed and indicted that they are less likely to study in a post-Brexit Britain.

Although a change of Prime Minister is always an opportunity to persuade him or her of the merit of removing students from the migration numbers, the likely winner at the time of writing (Theresa May) is unlikely to budge for reputational and political reasons.

Direct recruitment of other citizens
Young British people, in the large majority, were opposed to Brexit. We might imagine that this group- already in decline for the next few years given birth rates- are bound to have increased propensity to study overseas (particularly in the hiatus period).

Erasmus mobility
Depending on the nature of Brexit negotiated, then there will be no more Erasmus mobility. Although it is inevitable that HEIs will therefore lose opportunities for staff and students, it is probable that some EU exchanges would continue, even without mobility funding. As the majority of students currently self-fund to undertake study abroad in US and Australia, mobility would be only partially affected.

Standards and recognition
Europe has created a Bologna process which provides interoperability and a common framework for all universities. Some aspects of Bologna were regarded by VCs as daft they’ll argue that and Universities will save money and gain some flexibility by abandoning them. However HEIs have already had questions from EU students as to whether their degrees will be recognized so UK HE will lose some attractiveness.

Access to research funding
In the short-term there will be a downturn in applications to European funds. The Swiss experience is not encouraging and is in the public domain. In the event of hard Brexit HEIs will be looking to negotiate for the Research Council budgets to be increased to cover the missing European component (as happened in Switzerland) but will have to get in the queue behind the NHS, farmers etc.

Access to coauthors and research partners
Brexit makes the UK a less desirable research partner since we no longer have access to the EU single market in labour and ideas. Erasmus staff mobility at your institution is a key thing to keep an eye on.  A post Brexit-government will be more sensitive to accusations of racism so will be amenable replacing Erasmus funding from domestic sources.

Staff recruitment/retention
There has been a massive spike in interest in obtaining a passport from an EU country. So it is fair to assume, as the EU economies recover that EU nationals and mobile Brits will seek opportunities elsewhere. Current staff will leave. The number of EU nationals employed at your University (and their subject location) will be a key issue to keep an eye on. As in Switzerland, salaries may have to rise to compensate for living in the UK.

Borrowing will become more expensive. As inflation rises the Bank of England will raise the cost of borrowing. Capital costs will increase- capital equipment is often imported. Builders depend on foreign labour to keep margins strong.

Students’ Unions
There are few direct impacts that doesn’t relate to the institution’s biggest problems above. But an HE Bill is coursing its way around Parliament, and a snap election to kill it off now looks unlikely. Bills tend to have unpleasant ideas tacked onto them by backbenchers and we currently don’t have an opposition with the capacity to properly fight off something nasty being slipped in on SUs in coming weeks. Scary times.

Comment- expanding won’t save us now. Not all of us, anyway.

For a couple of months now I’ve gathering and trudging my may through HE strategic plans to help think through how we might best support student officers charged with influencing those strategies in the interests of students. Even before Brexit this was a miserable task- not only is the level of similarity one that would cause a turnitin server to billow with smoke, they’re also all full of daft jargon- the overall impression being that they were written by the sort of bots that are now taking the graduate level jobs that were previously promised to the students that fill these places.

There’s good news and bad news. The good news is that things seem to have moved on a little since the last time I did this exercise- back in 2011 almost every HE strategy promised their Governing Body a climb in the league tables, a feat that I thought was impossible until I remembered that climbing the tables is as simple as inventing a new one. These days there is at least a dose of financial realism coursing through the pages of apple-less macs, lab coated boffins and stationary mortarboards. The bad news is that having collectively identified the right problem (UK HE is going slowly bankrupt), everyone has identified the same answer. And they can’t all be right.

“Growth”, proclaims a chapter title in one. “Meeting demand”, yells another. Some have graphics of the University expanding its geographical coverage, like a map of biological attack in 24. Others talk of growing popular markets, exploring new subject areas, building gleaming new facilities, meeting higher level skills shortages, and of strengthening balance sheets. They’re all growing their way out of the problem. None are specialising. None are getting smaller.

There are psychological reasons for this. Contracting is what you do in a crisis. Mergers are what you do when your back’s against the wall. Bold leaders- especially white men bold leaders- do bigger, do better, and do more. They wear hard hats and they invite politicians to open things and they reassess ever wider risk envelopes as a powerful signal of their institutional virility. You can’t trouser a pay increase and then make the edifice smaller- it sounds wrong. And in UK HE, the amazing thing is that this strategy of growth has almost never gone wrong.

It’s been like this because UK HE has never really stopped growing. If the answer was “grow our way out”, government policy was almost always either about to or in the middle of making that happen. Entire careers, books, best practice models and leadership/governance/management cultures have been built on more HE. But savvy student officers and their fellow lay governors ought to be a bit more critical this time.

Research income looks shaky to me. Sure, we trade on reputation and grants will last a while. But without EU funding, academics will drift elsewhere and our research outputs will decline- the classic spiral of decline. Those that think our labs and boffins will get our fair share of EU savings need to understand that this isn’t the NHS, or even farming. Less research will get done in UK HE.

International students looks like a problem. “A weak currency will help”, say the idiots. It will for holidays. But if you’re committing for 3-5 years what you really want is currency stability. If no UK HEI has dared fix its international fees in the currency of student origin so far, few international students will be so bold to commit to post Brexit Britain.

And even that assumes they’d want to. The gossip amongst the international recruiters is that without being the pre-eminent broker to Europe, recruitment to business schools from China looks like even more of a busted flush than it did in May. And as the rest of the world realises that’s what’s needed there is what’s needed here- high level vocational STEM- but finds an oversupply of humanities being missold to the middle classes- they’ll drift off, and take their money with them.

Traditional home 18 year olds? Look at the birth rates, hurtling down now for the next 6 years. EU students? They’ll stick around in the EU. Government funding? Not when the new drive for hard outcomes data reveals many of the myths of Harry Potter HE to be smoke and mirrors. Lending and bonds? That looked like a plan that would work for at best the top third of the sector 6 weeks ago. Now it just looks farcical.

So no HEI should be thinking it can expand its way out- or at least most of them shouldn’t be. A crisis is coming- one that HE has so far been protected from and leaders in the public and voluntary sectors refused to see before it was too late, trapped in management and governance cultures obsessed with looking back- giant rear view mirrors full of reports and explanations and tiny, cracked windscreens only glanced at annually in a room full of flipchart paper that no-one writes up.

Perhaps the worst news for us all is the reshaping of politics. Politics to date has been about two tribes- a left dominated by social liberals and a right dominated by social liberals, all of whom have tended to view things like HE expansion and students’ unions and the liberal arts as a good thing. But both global and domestic events might be causing new groupings- where the dominant choices might be about the other axis on the political compass- those of authoritarianism versus the previous dominance of cosy liberalism. In that context it’s not so hard to imagine Labour voters turning to UKIP and a centre party emerging out the Hampstead set- especially with Scotland spun off into the Nordics. But it is very hard to see HE as we know it being a priority that survives without a dominant liberal consensus.

That’s why I’m starting to think that the bold breed of HE managers will start to do what they’ve not done for years. To stop competing. To contract because it’s smart. To merge because it’s sensible. To shore up what they’ve got, batten down the hatches and hope for the best by planning for the worst. And if they don’t, it might be time for the student officers and student governors we support to point out that their HE emperors are wearing no clothes.

Powerpoint: Some Brexit Thoughts


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