Ever since I became an Contributing Editor of Wonkhe, David Kernohan has been asking me to write a piece arguing that Brexit will be good for UK higher education. And I’ve been repeatedly telling him no, for one simple reason: I don’t believe it will be.
That’s not because I’ve change my mind about leaving: democratic accountability and the UK’s continued existence as an independent sovereign nation are more important than the short-term advantage of any single sector. But I do acknowledge that universities, as almost uniquely internationally linked institutions, will face challenges – whether that’s on student recruitment, access to research funds or movements of researchers.
So this isn’t the article that says Brexit will be a boon for universities – it won’t. Nor is it one that makes the broader case for Brexit (you can read that elsewhere) or tries to predict what will happen over the next few weeks (a mug’s game, if ever there was one). I accept that if you’re reading this on Wonkhe you’re probably opposed to Brexit, and I’m not attempting to change your mind about that. But all events have silver linings, and set out below are five silver linings from Brexit for the HE sector, which even the most committed Remainer may be able to take some solace in.
1. An end to discriminatory treatment of students
I find it hard to imagine that anyone in the sector, faced with a blank sheet of paper, would devise an admissions system that discriminated between students from France or Romania on the one hand, and students from Canada, China or Kenya on the other. It is almost impossible to argue that it is fair that a German or Slovenian student should be charged £9,000 and receive a generous loan package, whereas as Japanese or Indian student should be charged twice as much and receive nothing. Furthermore, given the balance of ethnicities within and outside the EU, such as state of affairs is clearly an example of indirect racial discrimination.
I don’t deny that unwinding this state of affairs will be difficult and financially challenging. It’s also without a doubt that many, myself included, would prefer the focus to be on removing barriers to international students. But while the path may be far from ideal, the end to such blatant discrimination at the heart of university admissions is surely some consolation.
2. More money (for the lucky few)
Economic modelling carried out for HEPI in January 2017, in partnership with Kaplan and London Economics, found that while Brexit was likely to have a negative effect in terms of income from EU students, the impact would be spread unevenly across the sector. Indeed, for a small number of institutions, the ability to raise fees to international levels more than compensated for the reduction in numbers, leading to a net increase in income.
It’s important, however, not to overstate the magnitude of this silver lining. Not only were fewer than ten institutions positively affected, these institutions are also likely to be amongst those most significantly impacted by any disruption to research funding or cooperation.
3. Better labour conditions
Labour conditions for early career academics are appalling. Only in the university sector would it be considered routine to keep staff with doctorates on short-term, casualised contracts. Similarly, the practice of forcing capable, mid-level staff – those doing good work but unsuited to further promotion – to move from temporary contract to temporary contract until they give up and leave is bizarre: in other professional sectors such staff would move into permanent, valued jobs as junior managers, associates or similar. Indeed, so exploitative are the conditions that the economic model has been seriously compared to that of a drug gang.
Universities can get away with such treatment because they are blessed with an overabundance of willing labour. So competitive is the jobs market that it is incredibly difficult for many talented UK aspiring academics to secure a permanent position, with those who are unable or unwilling – perhaps due to caring responsibilities – to suffer years of uncertain employment and geographical moves particularly badly affected.
If Brexit disrupts this supply then, faced with the iron laws of supply and demand, universities may for the first time be forced to genuinely compete to recruit and retain early career staff. To do so, some may choose to improve employment conditions and reduce casualisation, potentially even stimulating more systemic reform of ‘standard practice’ across the sector.
4. ‘For the many, not the few’
Polls indicate that in 2017 54% of university staff voted for Labour, with a further 29% voting for other left of centre parties. In principle, therefore, the idea that the more privileged should be willing to pay a financial price in order to benefit those less fortunate should be not just accepted, but welcomed, by academics.
The majority of Leave voters were overwhelmingly less privileged than university staff, particularly in terms of education. While you may not agree with Leavers’ priorities, it is not for you to dictate what they should value: to do so would be the height of arrogance, the moral equivalent of declaring that benefits must only be spent on goods that you, the taxpayer, determine are ‘worthy’. If you voted for a left-wing party in 2017, by the same principle you should be willing to pay a financial price to deliver the Brexit desired by those without your privileges.
5. It won’t be as bad as you fear
During this debate, both sides have routinely exaggerated their positions. Just as the UK’s contributions do not simply translate into £350m extra for the NHS, there was no immediate recession, ‘immediate and profound economic shock’, 10% drop in house prices or “punishment budget” as a consequence of the vote to Leave. Similarly, the summer of 2018 was marked by repeated stories of planes being grounded in the event of No Deal, only to see, entirely predictably, the EU make provision in December for flights to continue for 12 months to allow alternative measures to be put in place.
So while the university sector will undoubtedly face difficulties, they almost certainly won’t be as bad as many of the scenarios being bandied about. Already, one of the principle fears – that Brexit would have a catastrophic impact on the UK’s attractiveness to international students – has been proved false, with EU applications up 1% and non-EU international applications up 9% in the latest UCAS cycles. There will be challenges, but mitigations and alternative sources of funding will do much to ensure that universities can weather the storm.
“I pass the test. I will diminish, and go into the West and remain Galadriel“
My intention is not to say that these silver linings should change your view on Brexit. At most, it is to show that there are two sides to every coin. As I first wrote in 2014, the fundamental choice in Brexit wasn’t – or shouldn’t have been – about economics. And two and a half years on, that’s become ever more evident. Whether or not you wish to Remain or Leave should be based on your views on international cooperation, nationhood, peace in Europe, democratic accountability, free movement (pro or con) or sovereignty, not on a pettifogging percentage point or two of GDP.
Equally, what Britain’s universities stand for doesn’t depend on whether we’re in or out of a political bloc. Our sector’s values and culture are not determined by whether laws are made in Brussels, Westminster or Holyrood. Regardless of what deal we leave on, or whether we leave on no deal at all, I’m confident that Britain’s universities will continue to be global, outwardly looking and cosmopolitan places, extending a welcoming hand to people from across the world.