The only fact we can be sure about is that no-one actually knows; it will entirely depend on the government’s choices about UK policy and the outcome of the negotiations over the following two years.
There might be a change of UK government, or its leadership, if we vote to leave and other pressures in Europe will influence the negotiations. Leave campaigners are presenting a rosy alternative of a future free from EU regulation, with lots of spare money to spend on UK priorities, but they don’t really know either.
Two essays published in March 2016 by the All-Party Parliamentary University Group on Universities set out clearly the arguments on each side as they relate to universities. However, the introduction to the paper notes that at the APPG meeting in October 2015 “Others noted that what had been missing in the wider debate so far, but also including within higher education, was that the referendum would be decided on emotional narrative and not by facts and figures”. It seems that decisions will be determined by each voter’s political convictions and risk appetite.
These are not comfortable areas for academic debate. University Vice-Chancellors and Universities UK have been criticised for expressing views in favour of remaining in the EU, and have also been criticised for falling back on arguments based on fear (or risk) or money. The concern about the financial implications of leaving is not surprising; it is taken as read in a recent House of Commons briefing paper that mobility and research funding will be lost. What is interesting for universities in this paper is just how short the HE section of the briefing paper is. HE does not seem to have much influence on the overall debate; the views of those in the sector in favour of staying in the EU are too easily dismissed as self-interested and risk averse.
Turning to some of the issues:
In terms of student numbers, a rosy picture from the leave campaign (and the House of Commons paper) is that EU student numbers will remain high and they will all pay higher international fees and not rely on UK loans – this sounds like good news all round?
- HEFCE’s figures show a trend of increasing EU student numbers, but this might not be maintained with higher fees and no access to tuition fee loans. Universities could choose not to charge higher fees to maintain numbers – but this might be hard to justify financially or from the point of view of fairness to international or UK students. Some universities may struggle to maintain student numbers if it becomes harder to recruit EU students.
- A recent House of Commons briefing paper on student loans estimates that 65% of EU students took up fee loans in 2013/14. Some of these students may be taking loans because they can, rather than because they need to (according to UUK, more EU borrowers than English ones repay in full or make large repayments). It has been hard to recover debt from some of these students, although the overall default number is smaller than for UK students; the government’s student loan repayment strategy (Feb 2016) aims to improve collection rates.
- The government has a big focus on widening participation – although overall numbers of EU students may not be affected, it does seem that changes to fees and loans might mean that fewer EU students from poorer EU countries or poorer backgrounds might come to the UK. Although this may be only fair – they will be treated the same as other international students – it may be that the social mix at UK universities will be affected in a way that does not help those potential UK students who think that university is not for them.
- It is always possible that the UK government might agree to extend UK level fees and tuition fee loans to EU students as part of a BREXIT deal negotiated with the EU, which also allows UK students access to EU institutions on the same basis as local students. It is hard to say how likely that is, but universities would need to make a case for it if they wanted it.
On mobility, much is made of the Swiss example, when Erasmus funding was withdrawn following a referendum that affected freedom of movement with the EU. Funding for mobility programmes might be replaced from other sources (as it was in the short term in Switzerland). The bigger potential issue for mobility is the UK (and the EU) approach to immigration post BREXIT – what rights will UK students, graduates and staff have to study and work in the EU, and what will the UK allow for EU students and staff who come here?
When so much of the debate has been about immigration and sovereignty, it is surely unlikely that after a leave vote the UK government would believe it had a mandate to sign up to the EEA (the Norwegian example) and so some general restriction on free movement seems likely.
A limited deal on free movement of students and staff (in both directions) might be negotiated as part of the BREXIT arrangements, which would help with mobility (and might also with the Erasmus negotiations). This is something that the sector would want to lobby for quickly if the vote in June is to leave.
The UK has been very successful at securing EU research grants and the rosy perspective of the leave campaign is that the EU would continue to fund excellent UK research. They also argue that some of the money currently wasted on other barmy EU initiatives could be reinvested by the UK government in filling any gaps. Of course, that may turn out to be right.
- There are side benefits to EU research funding processes – including the collaboration behind the scenes, even for unsuccessful bids. Many EU research funding opportunities require international collaboration. Collaboration would of course continue, but some of the reason and motivation for it might be lost if UK funding replaced EU funding.
- Each EU funding opportunity specifies which countries can be involved. How would this evolve, could it be covered in a BREXIT agreement? At the least, the UK is unlikely to be at the table negotiating funding priorities.
- There has been much criticism of the bureaucracy of EU research funding. Instead of chasing EU money, universities could develop international collaborations and apply for international funding. But shouldn’t they do both?
Universities tend to be fairly risk averse, and many of the people who work in them, like people everywhere, dislike change, or are resistant to adapting to external change. BREXIT is unlikely to be a disaster for universities, even if the rosiest view is too rosy and the government doesn’t do as well in the negotiations as the leave campaigners seem to expect them to (this optimism amongst the leavers is odd too, given their criticism of the latest deal, or perhaps they expect a change of management). So universities may just be behaving rationally in resisting change and avoiding risk. Of course, universities have survived greater changes and bigger shocks in the past, and they would just have to adapt.
There are other reasons why many people in the higher education sector may be uncomfortable with the idea of leaving the EU. In leaving Europe, the UK would lose its ability to influence the EU from the inside. Even less tangible, the UK and its higher education sector would lose, even if only at a symbolic and emotional level, some of our closeness to our European colleagues. Universities have a role to champion excellence and opportunities for all, and closing our doors (even with secret passages for select groups) conflicts with those values. Universities thrive on collaboration, and while we’d like to do more internationally and not just with the EU, why would we want our country to send a message that we don’t need or want to work with our EU colleagues? The experience of studying with others of all nationalities contributes to the life skills that will make our students employable. Having overseas staff here, and sending our own staff and students abroad, to the EU and elsewhere, contributes to our culturally diverse learning environment and we don’t want barriers to that, even psychological ones. Of course we want to do all of this at a global level, not just with the EU, but there must be a concern that voting to leave the EU sends an unhelpful message to potential international partners and students about the UK’s attitude to the rest of the world.
Jane Forster, Vice-Chancellor’s Policy Adviser – this represents my own views.
This blog was originally published on BU's Global BUzz pages.