HE Power List 2016: The Brexit big hitters

Of the ten most influential and powerful people in UK higher education, three are foreigners: Angela Merkel (2nd), Carlos Moedas (4th), and Xi Jinping (6th). A fourth, Mark Carney (11th), is a Canadian but based in a UK institution. In addition, David Davis and Oliver Robbins (3rd) are there solely for their Brexit (i.e. international) focussed work.

One of the dominant themes of this list, therefore, is the continued rise of international influence and power on UK higher education. In one sense of course, nothing is new. UK higher education has always been proudly, and beneficially, open to the world. President Xi represents both the continual influx of Chinese students but increasingly the Chinese money which is supporting debt issued by universities themselves, as well as by the UK government as it continues to run a deficit whilst funding universities. And Mark Carney also represents the flows of capital from across the world; indeed, the very fact that the Bank of England went across the Atlantic to secure him shows the global nature of financial markets.

Given Angela Merkel and Carlos Moedas’ influence in how the EU works, they would be influential in decisions on research funding and cross EU collaboration.

But my guess is that if the vote on June 23rd had gone the other way then both Merkel and Moedas would drop out of the top 10, if not out of the list altogether. David Davis, meanwhile, would still be sunning himself on the back benches in Westminster, and Oliver Robbins would keep on doing secret squirrel National Security Council work. Neither would be troubling our list at all.

Instead, we are faced with a Brexit negotiation in which universities will be both a major player and, paradoxically, in danger of being caught amidst flotsam and jetsam. On the one hand, the government says that it recognises universities’ contribution to UK plc, and pledges to safeguard research funding through to 2020. On the other hand, a move out of the single market entirely – which is what some of the latest straws in the wind suggest – would surely be detrimental to UK universities.

The rise of Merkel and Moedas, and the entry of David and Robbins, entirely reflects the centrality of the Brexit negotiations to what happens to UK HE over the next twelve months (and beyond).

So what should universities be doing to have influence with these political panjandrums? In my presentation at the recent BrHExit conference hosted by Wonkhe, I offered two quotes. The first is from an academic involved in the grammar schools debate: “You may have the best facts, but no one will believe you unless you have the best stories”. The second is from a senior official in the Brexit Department:  “Everyone making assumptions is wrong”. For me, they sum up universities’ role post-Brexit: don’t assume any particular starting point or desired end goal; and be prepared to argue on things other than dry facts.

When it comes to engaging with the new international influencers of higher education, whether UK based or international representatives, universities should recognise that the Brexit side ran two narratives during the referendum, but that they can only possibly engage in one. The case for leaving the European Union was based both on offering greater sovereignty and control, specifically with regards to immigration — the defensive, or reactive case — and on a newly liberated Britain being able to stride the world as an independent nation, “Britannia Unchained”, trading and communicating with everyone, unconstrained by EU bureaucracy — the proactive case.

The two ideas are not mutually exclusive, but certainly have different emphases, and it seems obvious to me that a higher education narrative post-Brexit that says universities can play a role in addressing the first of these concerns is misguided. Universities are seen – rightly or wrongly – as the epitome of the elite.

Regardless of the community links that many hold, they are not going to be seen as credible actors engaging in the sovereignty and immigration debate.

But they can – and should – be part of the second narrative. The UK government and the EU share an interest in having an outward facing UK. Universities should be clear as to how they can make that happen.

As a cursory look back at the 2015 Power List shows, making predictions as to what will happen over the forthcoming year is a mug’s game. But the one I will commit to is that come the 2017 Power List, these major issues will still be unresolved. Brexit, and the record international influence on UK higher education, is here to stay for a while yet.

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