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Brexit leak stokes fears UK Higher Education could lose its 'premier destination' status

Robert Stoneman Published 28 September 2017

Universities are bracing themselves for stormy waters ahead as the first hints of a post-Brexit education policy start to emerge

 

We have now seen the first hints of post-Brexit higher education policy, with a leaked Home Office document setting out tighter entry requirements for EU students, and confirmation the UK will seek to retain access to valuable EU research funding. This provides at least some clarity to a sector that feels increasingly under assault, whether over vice-chancellors' pay , allegations of price fixing tuition fees or poor cyber security measures. Nevertheless, universities are bracing themselves for stormy waters ahead.

The leak has stoked fears the UK could fall from its perch as a premier destination for higher education since it confirms the government's desire to immediately end free movement after Brexit and reduce net migration to the 10,000s. This is despite continued pressure to exclude foreign students from migration figures amid evidence just 4,600 overstayed their visas last year. This year has already seen a 5% fall in EU students compared to 2015 and any further decline would lead to greater competition for both a shrinking pool of foreign students and domestic students expected to fill any gap (itself also shrinking due to a demographic shift in the number of school and college leavers).

Greater competition for students means universities would likely sanction further investment in improving the student experience, if not at levels seen tuition fees were raised to £9k per year in 2012. However, any further capital spending would drain funding for IT spending more generally leading to a more concerted drive for efficiency savings and, potentially, shared services. Loss of access to EU students would also drive interest in the establishment of branch campuses abroad and would represent an opportunity for vendors able to offer parity of service globally.

On sunnier shores, some relief can be found in the announcement that the UK will seek to retain access to key EU research funding schemes. This includes Horizon 2020 and its successor, Framework Nine, and research linked to EU nuclear energy (Euratom) and space (Galileo and Copernicus). Currently, the UK receives €1.3bn per-year in EU funding, more than it pays in, so this commitment provides some hope such a vital funding stream will not dry up entirely.

However, as always, the devil is in the detail. It is almost certain some form of associated access, similar to that enjoyed by non-EU members of the EEA, could cost the UK as much as it currently receives in grants. Any expansion of Framework 9 may also lead to even higher access costs. As an alternative, the government have outlined plans for a bi-lateral science and innovation agreement. Yet it remains to be seen how this would work in practice and, even if agreed, there are doubts it would provide comparable rewards.

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