Brexit, and its implication for the HE sector amid the uncertainty, took centre stage – with the urgency to ensure that the UK continues to participate in EU framework programs for research and mobility.
UK higher education sector attendees heard messages of overwhelming support for UK universities and a commitment to continue working together from international partners, while minister of higher education, science and innovation Chris Skidmore assured the sector of his commitment to internationalisation and mobility (inbound and outbound) in a video address.
The conference welcomed over 450 attendees from all over the world, with representatives from Cyprus, Norway, Spain, Canada, Switzerland, China.
“A lot of us involved in UK higher education have had our hearts in our boots recently – it’s been a very depressing, somewhat distressing period”
“The thing we have to fear most is a potential weakening of long-held partnerships and friendships across Europe. We must prevent this at all costs,” Steve Smith, vice-chancellor at the University of Exeter, said in his opening address.
Smith urged the sector to not “get distracted” from the main point, that the UK should remain part of the EU research and mobility frameworks. He also warned that without a change in post-study work provision, the goal outlined in the recently published international education strategy won’t be achieved.
Speaking to The PIE, UUKi director Vivienne Stern said that although a “small likelihood,” a no-deal Brexit would be “so completely catastrophic” that the sector needs to be prepared.
“The only things that matter are: are we going to be leaving without a deal on April 12? If so, are we ready? Or if there is a long delay and there is continued uncertainty, what can we do in that period between where we are now and the beginning of the new programs?”
In that case, she said, the sector will need to switch to “full lobbying mode” to ensure that the UK remains part of the new programs, such as Horizon Europe.
As for the post-study work visa, Stern said UUKi will keep advocating for a two-year provision.
“As far as I am concerned the UK is trying to compete with both hands tied behind its back at the moment, until the government sorts out that policy problem,” she said.
A panel discussion with representatives from across Europe tackled the issue of partnerships in a post-Brexit scenario. Speakers expressed worry and concern, but also unwavering support and commitment to work through the Brexit uncertainty.
“We need UK universities more than ever. We need to plan the future steps together”
Mari Sundli Tveit, Universities Norway chair, said that the mood towards the UK as a research partner is characterised by “worry and uncertainty.”
However, she also relayed that she is urging Norwegian universities to disregard the government’s advice to not consider the UK as a research partner or an exchange destination for their students.
The UK’s strong research pedigree is significant: nearly half of all of Norway’s Horizon 2020-funded projects have UK co-authors, she noted.
Marcin Palyn, representing the conference of rectors of academic schools in Poland, and Joseph M. Garrell, board member of Crue Universidades Españolas, also expressed similar messages of support.
“I wish to say we are here, side by side with you, to support you – we need UK universities more than ever. We need to plan the future steps together,” Garrell said.
Commenting on the panel discussion, Stern said it was the kind of “European group hug” that she thinks the sector needs right now to keep motivated to pursue its goals.
“A lot of us involved in UK higher education have had our hearts in our boots recently – it’s been a very depressing, somewhat distressing period,” she told The PIE.
“[Our European partners] are not just dispensing warm words but they are also willing to work towards the aims that we share, to lobby their governments, to put up public statements, to try and reassure their universities that they should keep working with us as they always have.”
The sector’s emotional reaction to Brexit was also the topic of a research led by Simon Marginson, which he presented in a session chaired by The PIE’s editorial director Amy Baker.
About 80% of the emotions tracked by its research were negative, but some HE stakeholders expressed some hope for the opportunities Brexit may bring, especially in relation to non-EU recruitment.
“Our world-leading universities and colleges are international at their core”
This was mirrored in the results of the QS international student survey, presented in another session, which found that a quarter of non-EU respondents thought that fewer EU students could mean more spaces available for them.
Countries in particular that could be more interested in a post-Brexit Britain, according to QS, were: Nigeria, Australia, Pakistan, Kenya and Indonesia (think NAPKIN for short).
In his video address, Minister Skidmore also reaffirmed the importance of keeping the sector open globally.
“Brexit means we now need to be thinking and acting more globally than ever before. Our world-leading universities and colleges are international at their core,” he said.
He also called on the sector to focus on improving the experience and employability outcomes for international students, and highlighted the importance of providing access to international experiences and exchanges for all domestic students, with a particular reference to the DfE’s support to the Fulbright Scholarship and the Generation UK China schemes.
The conference was wrapped by a panel discussion on universities and the UK’s place in the world, during which the role of UK education as an instrument of soft power was highlighted.
Richard Cockett at The Economist pointed out that soft power is often linked to facets to society such as music or media which are not in any way aligned with government. British education had an even stronger reputation than “brand Britain”, he counselled.
Closing the conference, Stern reminded the sector to not lose its compass in this uncertain time. “This is a sector which has enormous potential to do good in the world,” she said.