Brexit means tough times ahead for UK HE

Professor Aldwyn Cooper, Vice Chancellor at Regent’s University London, shares some sobering predictions about UK HE’s post-Brexit future.

There is much discussion about the potential impact of ‘Brexit’ on UK universities. The answer, of course, is that nobody really knows what will happen next, and the total impact will be determined by the nature of any agreement that is finally reached.

In terms of research funding, where at present UK universities are the largest recipients of EU research and structural funding, loss of access could be devastating to many higher education institutions.

“In terms of research funding, loss of access could be devastating to many higher education institutions”

Even though funding will still theoretically be available until at least 2019 and probably 2020, some UK universities are already seeing a reticence by European partners to collaborate on new projects. Corporate sponsorship is also already in decline during this period of uncertainty.

Immediately before the referendum, Bill Gates wrote a letter to The Times stating that he had invested $1bn in research at UK universities because of their quality and role in the EU. He made it plain that this would not continue if Britain voted ‘out.’ If funding and collaboration are curtailed, there could be a rapid drain of first-class academics out of the UK to other European and global centres.

Non-UK EU nationals represented 6.4% of all full-time undergraduate and postgraduate students at British universities last year, a number in the region of 150,000, making a significant contribution to institutions’ diversity and tuition fee income. Continental EU students are attracted by the quality of UK universities, free movement between the continent and the EU, and access to the same rights under the student loan scheme as UK students – £9,000 per year at state-funded institutions, and £6,000 annually at alternative providers.

The total fee revenue is in the region of £1.3bn to universities, meaning an impact on the UK economy as a whole of around £5bn. The post-Brexit position is unclear. Full separation would mean that continental EU students who need Tier 4 visas to study in the UK would not have access to the Student Loans Company. The may also be legally required to pay ‘International Student Fees,’ which are normally considerably higher than the domestic student cap – £9,250 for 2017/18.

It is highly likely that such a change would deter many EU students from electing to study in the UK. The impact on universities will vary significantly. London-based universities and specialist institutions have disproportionately high percentages of EU students and could be most affected by any decline in EU student recruitment.

Among larger institutions, non-UK EU nationals represented 18%  of full-time undergraduates and postgraduates at LSE, 16%  at both Imperial College London and SOAS, and as high as 30% at Regent’s University London. However, because of reputation, world rankings and student demographics, these institutions may be less affected by change than many of the Post-92 universities, some of which are already experiencing financial challenges.

It is of course possible that any Brexit agreement could include exemptions for students and academic staff and access to loans. However, whatever the result, the impact of the referendum needs to be considered in the light of general recruitment and financing of UK universities.

“Whatever the result, the impact of the referendum needs to be considered in the light of general recruitment and financing of UK universities”

Universities have experienced a protracted period of expansion and with numbers capped at each institution. However, the domestic, EU and global picture has changed.

Firstly, in the UK, government funding to universities and regulatory bodies has continued to decrease. At the same time it has been known for some years that there will be a decline in the demographic of potential 18 year old students due to the baby boom effect. Additionally, there is a growing reticence for this reduced population to attend university at 18, and instead consider early entry into employment, or take up the increased variety of apprenticeships. Finally, the lifting of the numbers cap is diverting numbers of better students from lesser universities to the most highly ranked.

In the first instance, many universities have increased their targets for international students from outside of the EU. However, the increasing restrictions on visas and the post-Brexit impression that the UK no longer welcomes ‘foreign’ students or views them as cash cows is diverting many from traditional markets – India, Pakistan, Africa and other areas of the Far East – to English-speaking competitor universities in America and Australia.

Universities in many countries, including those throughout Europe, are teaching in English and charging lower fees. Data from the last two recorded years shows that the UK has failed to reach its international student number targets by 12%. It should also be noted that there is a growing dependence at many UK universities on Chinese recruitment. Such a reliance on a single source is perilous and probably not productive educationally.

The removal of the numbers cap has led many universities to increase their efforts to recruit EU students. There is a very minor uplift in EU applications at present, but this is probably due to students wishing to get in under the wire where at present access to loans and fixed fees will be guaranteed until the end of their programmes.

“For some universities, the potential loss of continental EU students may break them”

There is evidence that many young people in the continental EU feel betrayed by the result of the UK’s referendum and no matter what the final Brexit outcome, it is likely that damage will already have been done to the reputation of the UK for international study.

Top universities, specialist centres, and those institutions like Regent’s University London which have a very particular student demographic that does not rely on student loans or a single national recruitment sources will continue to thrive. For others, the potential loss of continental EU students, for whatever reason, may break them.

If pension fund black holes are taken into account, some universities are already trading while insolvent. The argument has always been that they will grow and trade out of insolvency. In time of contraction this may not be so and they will have to consider closure or merger.

Professor Aldwyn Cooper is vice chancellor at Regent’s University London.