The report, carried out by the UK Trade Policy Observatory based at the University of Sussex, calls on the UK government to prioritise higher education and research collaboration post-Brexit through free trade agreements both within and outside the EU.
Research should be included “as an explicit area of cooperation” in FTAs between the UK and trade partners as the country negotiates more than one hundred new free trade agreements, it argues.
“The UK has strong interests in education services trade and it will have to make concessions in order to win them”
“The UK has strong interests in education services trade in both directions and must recognise that it will have to make concessions in order to win them.”
Access to the UK for students and the post-qualification conditions they face are likely to feature heavily among the demands made by trade partners in exchange for including higher education and research cooperation in FTAs, it suggests.
Qualifications recognition will also be a pertinent issue, it adds.
The political difficulty these concessions pose for the UK government “should not be under-estimated”, but is nevertheless outweighed by what the UK stands to lose if cooperation in this area falters.
Therefore, the report argues: “We would recommend that it become a high-level objective for the higher education sector.”
Commenting on the report, Alistair Jarvis, deputy chief executive at Universities UK, said: “The positive contribution of UK higher education to the UK economy and society will be greatest if British universities are magnets for international talent, are welcoming to international students and are leaders in international research collaboration.”
FTAs are a critical tool for higher education collaboration, given that although research agreements are possible even at government level outside of free trade agreements, “the UK government may be reluctant to pursue international research agreements outside the FTA discussions,” the report counsels.
The higher education sector should lobby for the inclusion of both specific agreements and broader commitment to collaboration “in a way that allows the scope of the cooperation to develop in directions not foreseen at the time of signature”, it argues.
“Universities can play a central role in strengthening our international trade and diplomatic relationships”
Prioritising collaboration at this high level will help to mitigate some of the challenges the UK’s higher education sector may face as its trade links shift, the report says.
For example, FTAs could help to ensure the formal recognition of UK qualifications overseas and go some way to cushioning UK education institutions from the restrictions some countries place on overseas entities, such as the requirement for a partnership with a local entity to operate.
In particular, “given that the UK and EU are already fairly well integrated in education and qualifications, serious thought should be given” to preserving the long-established links between the UK and EU and aligning other FTAs with them, the report suggests.
The focus on trade agreements as a tool to expand education exports marks a new direction for the UK’s higher education sector. At the recent International Higher Education Forum, universities were also encouraged to take a more mercantile approach to collaborations.
The event underlined the success the strategy has brought to Australian education providers. In 2014, decade-long negotiations resulted in a free trade agreement with China that extended the number of Australia providers listed on the Chinese government’s JSJ (Jiaoyu Shewai Jianguan Xinxi Wang) or “white list” of quasi-approved institutions.
Education also featured in Australia’s FTA with Singapore in 2003.