Lots of people recall Theresa May’s “Lancaster House” speech. So do I. In setting out the government’s negotiating objectives for Brexit in a speech at Lancaster House, she said the following:
I want us to be a secure, prosperous, tolerant country – a magnet for international talent and a home to the pioneers and innovators who will shape the world ahead. I want us to be a truly Global Britain
For higher education, a sector which embodies the concept of Global Britain, May’s words should have been a reason for optimism against the backdrop of Brexit uncertainty. But the reality in the time that has passed has been quite different. Instead of seeking to globalise the HE sector, policy decision after policy decision has seemingly sought to do the opposite.
The recent announcement of plans to remove home fee status and financial support for EU students from 2021 is a clear example of a step in the wrong direction, making it harder for international students to study in the UK when a “truly Global Britain” would aim to do the opposite. The extension of the post study work visa is a positive but still leaves international students in the UK at a disadvantage compared to counterparts in the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Canada – and that’s before even considering the knock-on effect of free movement ending. And the threatened withdrawal of funding from the Erasmus programme is as clear cut a case of causing unnecessary damage due to politicking as you’ll ever see.
Erasmus is a cause close to my own heart having spent a year at the University of Warsaw through the programme, and I have campaigned heavily while in office to protect funding in the event of no-deal. Over 50 student union officers and senior academics signed my open letter to the Education Secretary on the issue, and my own institution has agreed to cover the missing funding until 2021 if needed. But from the government, there has been a shameful lack of commitment to preserving Erasmus and the global opportunities it brings.
Half and half
It is worth pointing out that the UK is massively underrepresented in terms of participation in Erasmus as it currently stands. Compared to similarly sized states such as Spain, Italy and France the UK sends roughly half the number of students on Erasmus exchanges. The logical thought, if you wanted to make your country and its citizens more global would be through investment in the scheme – not through threatening to defund it.
And it is not just through Erasmus that UK students lag behind in terms of global outlook. Data provided by UNESCO suggests over 12 times as many international students study in the UK as UK students study abroad. The reality is that we shouldn’t just be trying ameliorate the effects of Brexit on our sector, we should be aiming to do better still and create truly globally oriented graduates. That would be the “truly Global Britain” the Prime Minister claimed she wanted to create, not the Little England we seem headed towards.
A good starting point would be to understand why British students choose not to study abroad to begin with. The appetite to do so is clearly there, with data provided by Unifrog to Tes showing that 3 per cent of sixth formers have seriously considered doing a degree in a university overseas. However, the cost of doing so is seen as the biggest barrier – 52 per cent of those surveyed by the British Council identified living costs as their biggest concern around studying abroad.
The role of student finance
Yet that is a problem that could be overcome, if we expanded our student finance system to provide support for those students who wish to study overseas. It would be no more difficult to administer than the current system is with regards to chasing students who go abroad after they complete their studies, and would enhance opportunities for all – completing a degree abroad would no longer be a privilege for the wealthy few.
Offering student finance for degrees abroad would be only one small step in building Global Britain. There is more we can and should do: protecting our participation in Erasmus, enhancing post study work visas for international students, encouraging universities to create joint degrees with institutions overseas, and improving the parlous state of foreign language learning in our schools. But it would be a hugely symbolic step in the right direction, and as Sam Gyimah wrote recently, “if we want Global Britain to be more than a bumper sticker, we have to match our ambition with action” – why not set down the path to a “truly Global Britain” with an action that enables every student to grow their own ambitions?