It’s hard to say, in a way which doesn’t lay the clichés too thickly, just how much change there has been in the political landscape in recent weeks, days and minutes. It’s loads. Loads and loads. We can also be certain that there will be more unsettling change: we know that the process of negotiating with, and exiting from, the European Union will take time. And there’s a lot to play for.
For universities, there is an urgent need for certainty for students, staff, research contracts, investment, and partnerships. The list goes on. However, that certainty isn’t going to come soon and universities need to cope in the short term, providing those reassurances they can within the bounds of what is known, and waiting patiently for the white smoke to appear from the negotiating rooms.
As well as waiting patiently, the higher education sector should make a strong case for the outcomes of the exit negotiations that it wants and that would serve it best. However, I would also say that there is room for universities to make the case for short-term certainties from the government. Right now.
Here’s my list of asks:
- The government should immediately bolster the UK research base with additional funding for the Research Councils. This should restore researchers’ confidence in the short term future with the prospect of losing out on Horizon 2020 funding. The money could be given out in a way which incentivises collaboration with other parties, including European partners, as a way of repairing some damaged bridges. New money should also help retain top researchers in the UK who might otherwise be considering leaving our shores.
- Working with the British Council, there should be a major worldwide charm offensive to demonstrate that the UK is open for business across all of its education and cultural sectors. Higher education providers should play an important and coordinated part in promoting ‘brand UK’ but they need a structure to work within in order to do so efficiently and therefore the government must take the lead.
- International students are a major source of export revenue, and with the weak pound the UK is even more desirable as a place to study. The government should make it as easy as possible for the UK to export its education. It should proactively make it easier to recruit international students and accept that putting up a wall between our universities and the world will not reduce net migration to the UK.
- Universities should be seen as an ideal vehicle for capital investment, particularly outside London. This could be in the form of grants or, less desirably, via government-backed loans. Any investment in UK infrastructure should seek to spend through higher education providers to provide short-term jobs and long-term educational benefit.
- The expertise of universities should be included in the Brexit negotiations: the UK team should include the brightest and best, and there is a great deal that the country’s academic community can contribute to the process.
Supporting the sector will cost money. In an ideal world, the government will see that cost as an investment. And higher education will need to make its case alongside other parts of the economy: the sector should be on the front foot with deployable, immediate asks. If the focus of energy is on the future, on resolving the big uncertainties, then other opportunities could be lost. If we want – and I assume the whole Wonkhe community wants – a healthy and sustainable UK higher education, then we need also to focus on the here-and-now.