How Brexit matters to higher education beyond Europe

The world watched with apprehension as the Brexit vote unfolded and, given the increasingly global nature of science and higher education, the British and international academic communities had reason to be particularly interested in the outcome.

In the aftermath of the arguably unexpected 'Leave' win, many are scrambling to understand its implications for education and research. What does the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union mean to Canadian universities, and why should they care?

An obvious reflex reaction was anticipated in commentary prior to the vote by those engaged in student recruitment, who salivated at the prospect of luring European students to Canada.

That is because European Union nationals benefit from domestic tuition fees in the UK as well as similar conditions for accessing financial aid as those of British students. Leaving the EU would presumably reset those conditions.

Before getting enthusiastic at this prospect, Canadian universities should think twice.

First, non-British EU nationals represented 5.5% of the total student population in the UK in 2015. This is a modest increase from 15 years ago (4.8%), and corresponds to 124,575 students.

British universities have been far more successful in their efforts to recruit non-European international students – who pay (much higher) international student fees.

There are more than twice as many students from outside of the EU in the UK, and their numbers have grown faster than those of European nationals. Notably, this growth occurred as the EU expanded its borders in 2004, 2007 and 2013, taking total membership to 28 countries and a population that now reaches half a billion people.

Second, a possibly more adverse context for European students in the UK in years ahead does not automatically make Canada more appealing. After all, how do we treat our own international higher education students in this country?

They pay higher tuition fees, health insurance and the Express Entry programme has made permanent residence for them more complicated in recent years. Federal and provincial governments can do a much better job at facilitating the recruitment of international students.

British insularity

Third, a global academic community where the UK becomes more insular is a loss for everyone, including Canadian higher education. History, culture and language tie the two countries, which is reflected in their academic relations.

The UK is the top study abroad destination for Canadian university students, and is among the countries with which Canadian researchers collaborate the most. When they partner in this way, they engage not just with British colleagues, but also with their European and global academic networks.

While Brexit will not shut Britain’s borders to Canada, it will almost certainly reduce opportunities available to those wishing to visit, work and study in the major English-speaking gateway to the EU.

It will reduce opportunities not least in terms of research support – about £1 billion (US$1.3 billion) in funding from EU-supported British research. The 31,000 EU nationals who represent 16% of all university researchers in the UK now wait anxiously to see what Brexit will mean for them.

Indeed, every single British university leader who spoke out on the referendum emphasised the benefits to Britain of remaining in the EU, and so did the UK Royal Society. Most university-aged young adults agreed: 75% of 18-24 year olds voted to remain.

For the academic community in the UK, the 23 June result was a clear loss. Hence, to focus on a possible windfall in international student enrolment in the post-Brexit world is simplistic and narrow-minded.

The question we should be asking is: how will one of Canada’s main scientific collaborators and academic study destinations cope with exclusion from the EU? This will matter to a much greater extent to Canadian scientists, students and scholars.

Creso M Sá is professor of higher education and director of the Centre for the Study of Canadian and International Higher Education in the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, Canada. He writes on science policy and higher education. His books include Tapping the Riches of Science: Universities and the promise of economic growth (Harvard University Press 2009) and The Entrepreneurship Movement and the University (Palgrave MacMillan 2015). Emma Sabzalieva is a British doctoral student researching the politics of higher education at the Centre for the Study of Canadian and International Higher Education.