Sweet dream or a beautiful nightmare: international partnerships post Brexit

It’s fair to say that Brexit is really not going according to plan. Shifting dates and a revolving door of proposals has only further divided a Parliament under strain.

Against this climate of uncertainty the challenges to the sector’s ability to internationalise are growing in number and intensity. The future of UK involvement in Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+ remains unresolved, and the recently published international education strategy, while notable for a shift in tone, opted for quantity of actions over quality of reforms on critical matters like post-study visa arrangements.

Even in these testing times the sector appears undeterred in its ambition. For the University of Birmingham’s Pro Vice-Chancellor (International), Robin Mason: “Brexit or not, Trump or not, China or not, whatever the geopolitics, we will continue to be international in what we do.” And as Director of Universities UK International, Vivienne Stern explains: “in an inadvertent way, Brexit has given us good reason to reset and refocus our approach.”

Both are of the view that no matter the changing exit scenario, the inherent and unchanging nature of academic activity requires universities to collaborate with international partners, including European ones. The opportunity before the sector is to do business differently.

Europe is also international

Robin identifies that for too long the sector has thought that to be international was to be “everywhere but in Europe.” Where efforts were directed towards building up close and deep relationships with individual partners in Australia and North America, EU coordinated mechanisms in Horizon 2020 and Marie Sklodowska-Curie meant that there has been less reason to be strategic in the way individual European partners were engaged. Moving forward, even if the UK is able to benefit from Horizon 2020 or similar schemes as a member, a multilateral approach cannot always be the default position.

The reverse also holds true. Trinity College Dublin’s Vice-President for Global Relations, Juliette Hussey asserts that though, “we will do everything we can to protect our relationship with UK partners,” a greater emphasis needs to be placed on building bilateral relationships institution to institution. Hussey says, “it forces us to think about which specific partners have the same shared outlook and values as us.”

Stern emphatically agrees with this notion and explains that universities must urgently work to “translate their non-EU relationships and models back into EU partners.” Whilst a breadth of relationships may have been the “flavour of the past,” for institutions to identify select countries with partners of interest and build deep relationships with them will be the “priority of the future.” She points to emerging examples of universities investing in joint academic appointments and shared investments in infrastructure, which while admittedly expensive activities, stand to yield high return for UK institutions and the economy at large.

The Cyprus lesson

In the lead up to Brexit, Stern says there is one issue above others that keeps her awake at night and that requires the sustained attention of the sector. The issue of the EU services directive and the implications that this has for the delivery of transnational education.

Depending on how EU member states have interpreted the EU services directive, UK degree programmes delivered in the EU may not be allowable in the event of a no-deal as such provision would no longer be covered by the directive. This could become an issue where the host country specifically limits the ability to deliver franchise provision to only EU member states.

This almost became the case in Cyprus had it not been for the swift action of the sector with the support of the British Council and the British High Commission. Stern reflects on a recent diplomatic encounter where this issue was worked through with the President of Cyprus on his visit to the UK. It was immediately addressed by the Cypriot government, with their Parliament passing an amendment to cover cooperation with UK institutions specifically.

This ensures that, even in the event of a no-deal exit, franchise provision from UK institutions will continue to be supported by the legislative framework and existing provision would be unaffected. This case study also serves as an example of the sector working together quickly and decisively to influence a policy win and again highlights the importance of nurturing relationships with EU member states at an individual level.

As Vivienne argues, in a post-Brexit world, transnational education will only become, “more central to ensuring the sector’s continued success internationally,” and being able to compete without restrictions in Europe is critical to this.

Opening our doors to the world

For Vivienne and Robin Brexit presents an obvious opportunity to deepen existing and build new ties with the rest of the world. In the absence of sustained political leadership and clear targets to grow international students (noting that the international education strategy only stated an “ambition” to increase the volume of international students by 30%), institutions must continue to lead and with increased vigour.

Robin shares that the University of Birmingham is working closely with their target partners – in Brazil, India, North America, China, as well as Europe – to develop university wide relationships that cut across research collaborations, student placements, and exchange of professional staff capability. Mason asserts that it is only by building these “intense relationships” with fewer partners that “we can maximise value.”

But what does this mean for students wanting to learn in the UK? Vivienne’s view is that even in these less than ideal times, there are inadvertent conditions that make it more favourable to study in the UK than before. She refers to work conducted by the Migration Observatory that found since the fall of the pound in 2016, education in the UK has become considerably cheaper for some key sending countries. “A Chinese student in December 2016, for example, would have saved 13% compared to their counterpart in June 2016 (just before the Brexit vote).” This is a message she feels that needs to be sung loud and widely.

Ultimately, the quality of UK higher education – its most defining feature – remains well intact. And remains the prime reason for why the door to students, staff, and partners around the world be open wide.

With thanks to Robin Mason, Pro Vice-Chancellor, University of Birmingham, Juliette Hussey, Vice President (Global Relations), Trinity College Dublin, and Vivienne Stern, Director, Universities UK International

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