Agenda: Implications of Brexit on higher & further education
Two months on from the result, anyone assessing Brexit impact has to admit that in truth “it’s too soon to say”.
For higher and further education in Scotland, however, there seems to be little, if any, anticipated benefit, and much potential harm. Obviously, until actual exit (terms unknown) the status quo, strictly speaking, applies. The sector is taking little comfort from that, as various bodies have made clear.
The Scottish Government says impact on higher and further education is one of its major concerns.
The UK Government has just announced replacement funding post-Brexit for (among other things) EU funding committed to UK universities pre-Brexit. Details to follow, including, presumably how long the support will continue and qualification criteria. Importantly, the proposal is a measure to ease transition, not to replicate, long term, the EU funding environment.
Transition apart, the implications of Brexit are extensive, and their extent ultimately unknown. However, as things stand, what are the main concerns in higher and further education?
Scottish higher education is successful, internationally renowned, and includes globally recognised centres of excellence. Access to EU research grants and co-operative projects with other EU institutions are an important part of what the Scottish universities do.
Transition measures will not remove doubts over whether grants will be replaced and whether standards can be maintained to allow competition for such non-UK funding as is available. Anecdotal evidence suggests some hesitancy already among European institutions over UK participation in joint projects, and signs of student recruitment getting harder. Scottish universities respond that the quality of their potential contribution is undiminished by the prospect of Brexit, but is that enough?
The further education sector also relies heavily on money from the European Social Fund. There are some recent projects delivering new teaching facilities which would not have happened without ERDF funds. Any adverse impact on further education has the potential to undermine efforts to close Scotland’s skills gap.
Prospects for recruitment and retention of staff and students are already a source of concern. There are several related issues. Will students from EU countries be discouraged from coming to Scotland by the absence of fee support (as international students), or possible visa requirements, or uncertainty about length of stay?
What about existing staff from EU countries? Unsettled already, how secure are they? If funding is constrained and student recruitment hampered, what is the impact on the attraction of teaching and research talent? There is no doubt the loss of freedom of movement for academic talent is high on the sector list of concerns.
Some institutions also note a proportion of their non-academic staff, say in domestic or facilities services, are from EU countries. They face the same uncertainties, with perhaps less prospect of a bespoke solution being found.
Educational institutions are closely woven into national and international culture. If Brexit is held to be a “wrong signal”, perhaps “isolationist”, what might be the result? If, as the Scottish government says, Scotland didn’t vote for Brexit, can the EU hear a different Scottish signal?
Is the cloud all dark, or is there a glimmer of opportunity? It seems to be hard to find one, but, for example, might students from EU countries still be sufficiently attracted by the special experience or quality of learning offered by Scottish universities that they are willing to pay?
In summary, as matters stand, there are many questions, no answers, and a lot of speculation.
The final question then, is what is to be done? That is, of course, primarily a political question. The Scottish Government’s present answer is: “Whatever is in Scotland’s best interests”.
However, the higher and further education institutions will find it hard to work on a reactive, wait and see basis. For things such as recruitment, planning of courses and programmes and projection of necessary facilities, they must plan ahead. In planning, they are likely to assume funding losses, and seek strategies to replace lost funding. They may look more aggressively at recruitment of foreign students. They will have to explore other means of raising long terms grants or other social funding, even if not from EU institutions; that may raise new challenges for governance. Commercialisation of intellectual property, facilities and training skill may reward ever more creative thinking.
As the UK Prime Minister has told us, Brexit means Brexit – but what does Brexit mean?