What next for universities after one hundred days of May?

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Friday 21st October 2016 marked one hundred days since Theresa May took office as Prime Minister. The change from PM Cameron to PM May is arguably greater than the change from the coalition to the Conservative majority administration after the 2015 General Election. There are clear shifts in tone, style and approach.

In the first three months of the May government policy development has been driven by a small group in Downing Street. Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill (joint Chiefs of Staff to the PM) and John Godfrey (Director of Policy at No.10) are the major figures shaping government priorities and are the PM’s closest confidants. There are rumours of regular diktats from Number 10 to departments and new policies being ‘handed down’ for ministers to implement or finesse. The command and control structure at Downing Street feels more hierarchical, and much less open to ‘outsiders’ than under David Cameron.

However, it would be a mistake to presume that policy is developed without input from the Cabinet. May has reinvigorated some key functions of cabinet government by setting up a range of powerful Cabinet committees. The most important are chaired by the PM herself: on the economy and industrial strategy, on European Union exit and trade, and on social reform. Reports suggest that these committees are formal and more business-like than Cabinet’s of recent times, with detailed papers and substantive debate, with all members given an opportunity to make their case and disagree.

Similarly, powerful Cabinet taskforces have been established. The opportunity for Cabinet members to express views on priority issues in a formal, private setting is perhaps unavoidable given the diversity of views in Cabinet on the Brexit, the economy, immigration, and more. This is not a Cabinet with a uniform view of many of the biggest challenges facing the UK.

Brexit and policy priorities

There is still a huge amount of uncertainty about what Brexit means for the UK. There are some things we do know but many very important things that we don’t yet know. May has made clear that her government is committed to delivering the UK’s exit from the EU, with a likely exit date of 2019. The exit negotiations which will begin by next March will dominate the next two years of politics.

It is still too early to gauge the details of the likely negotiating stance of our European partners. There are competing interests and views within the 27 EU countries that will have to agree on a collective position for dealing with the UK during exit negotiations. Although many leading European politicians see the benefits of a continued close relationship with the UK outside the EU and have suggested some room for compromise, many caution that offering a post-exit arrangement that is too favourable could encourage other countries to seek an exit. Elections are coming up in both France and Germany, with changes in leadership possible in both countries. The unknown economic impact of Brexit for both the UK and European countries adds further to the feeling of uncertainty.

Through a combination of exit negotiations and domestic policy the May government is aiming to balance three challenges: addressing immigration concerns; avoiding economic damage, and promoting a globally engaged UK.

The Prime Minister sees the referendum result as a clear signal that the British public believes immigration levels are too high and so has made it clear that her government will take action to reduce net migration. In the EU exit negotiations, this means that an end to free movement of people (in its current form) is sure to be a red line. Secondly, (albeit often whispered privately) most senior officials in government are concerned about the economic impact of Brexit and will aim to develop fiscal policy, trade policy and negotiate an exit agreement that supports the economy. Here we have an obvious point of tension, the challenge of securing the advantages of access to the single market (or at least as trade with minimum barriers) but without free movement of people (a key pillar of European cooperation). Thirdly, the government wants to ensure that leaving the EU does not mean that the UK becomes less internationally engaged. Liam Fox and Boris Johnson, in particular, will promote a vision of a global Britain with more, broader, and deeper partnerships with a wide range of countries.

Given that the Conservatives’ backbenches include a significant number of ‘hard’ Euro-sceptics, May will be held to account if there is a movement towards a softer form of exit. Complicating matters further are a number of vocal Remainers both on the backbenchers and in Cabinet.

Although exit negotiations will dominate the political and media debate, it would be a mistake to see this government only being about delivering Brexit. There are other areas of policy that the government wishes to get its teeth into. Six areas currently stand out:

  1. Reform of the immigration system;
  2. Development of a new cross-cutting industrial strategy;
  3. The development of a new trade and export strategy;
  4. Adjustments to fiscal policy;
  5. Evolving post-exit diplomatic and foreign affairs policy;
  6. Renewed efforts to promote social mobility.

What does this all mean for universities?

The vote to leave the EU clearly poses major challenges for universities – immediate, transitional and longer-term. Significant fears include restricting access to talent, damage to international research partnerships, a reduction in student and staff mobility opportunities, and loss of funding. Universities are also reassuring European staff, students and partners that the UK is still a welcoming place to live, work and study.

To imperative to reduce immigration could have a negative impact on universities’ ability to recruit international staff and attract international students. The Home Office, under instruction from No.10, is actively considering new proposals to reduce international student numbers, to consequently reduce net migration figures.

The Higher Education and Research Bill will result in a changed regulatory environment, new regulators and funding agencies, and new institutions entering the market. And then, of course, there will be the added challenge of the Teaching Excellence Framework.

Yet this array of challenges is accompanied by some new opportunities for universities. Universities can play a central role in delivering the industrial strategy and driving local economic growth through innovation research, knowledge exchange, business support and skills p. The focus on local economic growth and further regional devolution also provide potential opportunities. As major employers and economic anchors in cities and regions, universities are vital to the prosperity of their local areas.

Any new fiscal stimulus is likely to focus on capital investment with a clear economic return. Capital investment in universities would be a wise move to boost economic growth by enhancing research, innovation and university-business partnerships. This investment would lead to both increased productivity and job creation.

Under a new Secretary of State, Priti Patel, there is also potential for refocusing the UK’s international development strategy and budget away from aid and towards supporting international trade and partnerships with the developing world. University teaching and research partnerships with developing countries should be an important part of this. Similarly, there are opportunities for universities as part of the new export and diplomatic strategy, enhancing the UK’s trade and soft power.

Making a case for universities

From speaking regularly to policy makers and influencers in and around the government it has become clear that universities need to carefully consider how they make political arguments under the new government. To thrive post-Brexit, universities need a favourable outcome from exit negotiations and to maximise our influence in domestic policy developments.

Hard as it may be for some, the sector needs to frame its post-Brexit priorities positively. We must accept the political reality that the government is committed to ensuring the UK exits the EU. To challenge this would position universities as a barrier to a successful post-exit Britain rather than as a part of the solution. We must emphasise the opportunities as well as the challenges for universities presented by the UK’s exit from the EU. This should include explaining how universities can play a central role in supporting the government’s priorities – in export strategy, jobs, growth, industrial strategy, innovation, inward investment, social cohesion, diplomacy, and international partnerships.

It is important to avoid a Europe-centric outlook. Rather, we need to set out a vision that is global in ambition. Maintaining strong European cooperation should be part of a broader global agenda rather than an end in itself. Policy proposals might include preferred models of engagement with European programmes and partners, but they must also take a wider view of the world. We should avoid just trying to protect the status quo and not limit ourselves to merely maintaining access to current cooperation mechanisms and arrangements with Europe. We will need to set out the kind of domestic policy change that is required for universities to thrive (e.g. immigration reform, R&D investment), and not just what universities want from Brexit negotiations.

Crucially, we must explain why the success of universities is vital to the success of the British economy, society and individuals. We should not presume that the benefits of international research collaboration, the benefits of international staff and students, the benefits of mobility, and the importance of investment in international initiatives are recognised or understood by the new government. In order to thrive, we will have to redouble our efforts to prove our relevance.

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