Five immediate steps the government should take to support universities

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

5 thoughts on “Five immediate steps the government should take to support universities”

  1. I find No.1 oddly vague. Clearly if it turns out after negotiations that the rEU and the UK can’t agree on associate status of the EU programmes for the UK then the British Government would have to step in and provide funding to compensate. But the current problem is the chilling effect of all this uncertainty on new collaborations in the period whilst we are still in the EU and a full member of the EU programmes: the need now is for the UK Govt to reassure collaborators by making a clear commitment to pick up the full costs of UK participation in any new projects approved pre-Brexit should that be necessary.

    1. Ant says:

      I feel that the government should act immediately, and not wait for the outcome of exit negotiations (take actions within its control, not subject to further negotiations over weeks/months/years). With stories of aggressive recruitment offers from the US and rEU, and UK researchers being asked to withdraw from consortia or to change their lead status, there is an urgent need to shore up research activity. I worry that leaving it too long will cause lasting damage to the health of UK research.

    2. pbacsich says:

      My view entirely

  2. Edward Harcourt says:

    ” 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.” The government should go further than this and remove internationally mobile students from the net migration calculation – as UUK and BIS have been advocating for some time now. It would be one way for the new government to draw a line under the ‘tens of thousands’ net migration target and, in effect, hit the re-set button.

    1. Ant says:

      The issue goes further than the net calculation. There should be a policy to make it easier for students to come and study in the UK, for example by reducing the amount of money they are required to show they have. There could be further demand stimulus through reviving post-study work visas. It’s not just about removing students from the net target, but taking active steps to increase numbers.

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