Brexit and the Strengthening of US Partnerships

“US institutions will do well to pay close attention to the final negotiations of Brexit in early 2019”

The much anticipated  September report of the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) has largely confirmed everyone’s expectations: yes, foreign students are an unalloyed benefit to the UK, but, no, not all obstacles will be removed to promote their arrival.

It’s a bit of a contradiction, but one that might be explained by the committee being appointed and answerable to the Home Office. With its eyes on the Brexit horizon, the committee admits it sees “no strong arguments for discriminating in favor of EU Students.”

Just over one year ago, researcher Ludovic Highman predicted the effects of Brexit on UK higher ed in both cautionary and optimistic terms:

“UK higher education is about to experience a period of turbulence, as the consequences of the UK leaving the European Union (EU) become clearer. Higher education institutions are bracing themselves for what will no doubt be a period of substantial change, uncertainty and challenge, but also opportunity.”

Unsurprisingly, coverage across Europe and the US has generally favoured the kinds of stories that have prompted readers to brace themselves.

There is good reason and evidence to believe that exchanges, collaborations, and enrollments at UK universities will suffer as a result of the Brexit, particularly in the case of a ‘hard Brexit’: 6% of the 2.3 million students studying in the UK will be fully exposed to the enormous fees that come with being reclassified as international students, prompting them to stay home and throwing the billions of pounds they contribute to the annual UK economy into limbo.

A 2017 report to the House of Commons predicts a total loss of EU applications at 57% when all policy changes have been implemented. In addition, the robust funding of teaching appointments, collaborative research and jointly-run institutes would be put at serious risk (over 80 billion euro), especially in the humanities and social sciences, where the British government is less likely to recommit resources. To some, though, the biggest losses will be less quantifiable: the weakening of international exchange, shared knowledge and the ideal of a unified Europe.

While the threat to existing partnerships and initiatives is certainly real, Brexit is also offering a unique opportunity for UK universities to reevaluate their institutional priorities, strategies and partnerships going forward. Dr. Highman appears buoyed by the moment in his 2017 Policy Briefing for the Centre for Global Higher Education:

“Brexit requires UK universities to carve for themselves a more proactive role at the centre of new free trade agreements in the competitive higher education market. This will require not only a cross-government strategy but also universities to position themselves as gateways to their regions […].”

“Brexit is also offering a unique opportunity for UK universities to reevaluate their institutional priorities, strategies and partnerships going forward”

The fact remains that the majority of international students studying in the UK come from non-EU member states,  with non-EU enrollments dominating across all levels of higher education. Furthermore, EU students contribute on average  £60,000 less than other international students. In London, non-EU international students contribute 1.16 billion pounds in tuition fees compared to the 198 million given by students from EU member states.

This gives UK institutions strong incentive to strengthen ties with organizations, researchers and students from other parts of the globe, particularly in China,  the United States and India, its three biggest sources for international students. A shrinking global market share in candidates will only further motivate the UK to upgrade its non-EU partnerships.

David Fearn, Dean for Global Engagement (University of Glasgow), views the present as a motivation to pare down agreements and achieve focus with key international partners in Asia, Australia, and the Americas:

“I don’t see Brexit as a negative factor with regard to our US partnerships. We are enthusiastic to increase our student mobility. For many students, language is a factor so US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand are all popular exchange destinations. Indeed, we have several exchange partners who are enthusiastic to send us more students if we can send them more.”

Under Theresa May, UK trade and immigration policy appear to encourage further this shift in perspective. Liam Fox, UK Secretary of State for International Trade, continues to push for higher export targets, predicting an increase to the GDP of 5 percentage points.

Though highly optimistic, the Secretary’s outlook points forcefully toward a desire to make Brexit a historical moment for new beginnings, new deals and unprecedented growth. Commonwealth and English-speaking nations rise to the top of those imagined (albeit contested) collaborations. Signs point to the persistence of a tiered visa system that will likely favour full fee paying students from the commonwealth, emerging and wealthier nations.

A 2013 study by the British Council neatly underscores this trade-migration convergence in higher education:

This research found a strong correlation in certain countries between student and trade flows. In some countries, such as Canada, Japan, China, South Korea and India, the correlation is above 70%.

In its recent list of recommendations to the MAC, the UK Council for International Student Affairs repeats the refrain:

We note in particular that the countries which send most international students to the UK are precisely those who currently are, or are likely to be in the near future, amongst the UK’s most significant trading partners. (China, the USA, India and then multiple countries in the EU).

This is something the Prime Minister herself has begun to realize, softening on her hardline position toward international students during a recent visit to China.

A UK-based director of education abroad observed that as internationalisation becomes more tightly tied to economic outcomes and national political strategies, we will begin to observe a realignment in UK universities’ stature and fortunes. Favor will skew toward larger institutions that privilege current government policy and business interests.

US institutions will do well to pay close attention to the final negotiations of Brexit in early 2019. With May and Trump “keen” on making a “great” post-Brexit deal, there will be plenty of opportunities to forge new and bolster old partnerships with UK institutions of higher learning.

About the author: Kyle David Anderson is director of the Center for Global Citizenship, after serving as assistant professor of Chinese and chair of Asian studies at Centre College