The importance of keeping globally engaged

The Brexit decision brought into sharper focus the slowdown in globalisation that has been underway since the 2008-09 recession. Foreign direct investment is still at reduced levels, cross-border lending has remained flat for the past five years or more and political sanctions, however legitimate, continue to constrain trade.

As economies have slowed, electoral volatility in many countries and campaigns has become increasingly divisive. The consequent uncertainty about policy environments further reduces investment and consumer spending.

Many governments have responded by creating barriers to trade to protect local producers or stave off dumping strategies of other nations seeking to help their domestic industries. Between them the 20 more developed economies have already made more than 350 protectionist decisions this year, ranging from import quotas to local content requirements to direct subsidies for local production sites.

The freer flow of people that came with the break-up of the Soviet Union, cheaper and easier cross-border travel and a growing global middle class has led to a numerical increase in migration.

While the share of the world population who are migrants has been constant at around 3%, numerically the number has increased by 50 million in the last 10 years. Within nations a lot of the numerical increase has been concentrated in cities like Inner London, Los Angeles County, Toronto, Oslo and Sydney.

The visibility of migrants in these cities and in many smaller communities has fuelled some of the debates about unemployment, national identity and the inequitable distribution of the gains of globalisation.

International students

In the United Kingdom these issues have been bubbling for some years and widened to include flows of international students. In 2010 new visa rules were announced to limit work opportunities for students after graduation. These were implemented in 2012 and extended in 2015.

Costs of visas increased, national health charges were extended and limits placed on student flexibility in changing or extending courses or changing visa status. While some of these refinements were responses to abuses, particularly by adults in non-degree courses, they have also dampened demand overall. Non-European Union student arrivals are down in 2016 and the mid-year estimate of long-term immigrants for study in the UK is the lowest since 2007.

Constraints on population mobility seem certain to continue to tighten in the UK with a focus on employment opportunities for incoming specialists and graduating international students.

Home Secretary Amber Rudd’s desire to emulate and extend the obligations of employers using the United States’ H-1B work visa which include four attestations, a notice to all other employees, a US$1,500 application fee and maintenance of an audit file for five years, may not come to pass.

But the simple airing of these proposals will send a signal, deterring skilled migration and encouraging young people to study elsewhere.

Internationalisation vs globalisation

What does this mean for UK universities and for other universities and colleges that have been pursuing internationalisation strategies in student recruitment and faculty diversity? It will be a time to determine clearly and concisely why the institution is pursuing an expansive, inclusive mission that goes past immediate political and economic boundaries. A good place to begin is to clarify the goal.

Internationalisation has the idea of the sovereign nation buried in its midriff. It implies an arrangement between two nations through which each has the capacity and desire to regulate how they deal with the other. Globalisation is a term that covers the array of connections between economies, cities, communities and institutions.

Colleges and universities with some degree of independence or autonomy may be able to ignore Brexit-like decisions and policies. This will be easier for the lightly coupled state institutions and the well-resourced private colleges and universities. Hopefully they will be globally engaged in the years ahead.

Why should they be globally engaged? There are at least five benefits to institutions. First, there is a pedagogical benefit: increasing the breadth and diversity of the student body enhances the learning of all. Then there is a benefit to the academic community: its quality lifts due to being open to the best faculty regardless of nationality.

The impact and relevance of scholarship strengthens when researchers look past parochial concerns and address problems of practice and policy that are common to different contexts and cultures or which cross national boundaries. That includes reaching across borders to address some of the larger and more intractable problems in locations and settings that are less advantaged through research, scholarship, capacity building and teaching.

Finally, the institution benefits from engaging with globally dispersed alumni who can amplify its message, support it directly and indirectly and connect it to talented students and faculty.

Uneven effects

Even as institutions work to remain globally engaged they will not be isolated from the effects of national policies on trade and population mobility. But the effects will not be uniform, just as the benefits of globalisation have been unevenly spread.

The impact will likely be more intense in sectors that have flourished during a period of economic integration. For example, in the UK there are about 1.1 million jobs in the financial sector and one third of trade in financial services is with the single European market.

If the industry cannot sell services seamlessly into Europe, there will be a loss in revenue and jobs. Some companies will relocate to more favourable trading environments with further job losses.

Entry level jobs will be first hit and that will flow quickly to higher education providers, which in 2016 had about 55,000 overseas students in business and administrative studies, including accounting and finance. It will reach the dozen or more universities, from Aberdeen to London, which offer masters degrees in finance.

These market shifts are beyond the reach of colleges and universities, but there are areas where the voice of institutional leaders can make a difference. There is a general need to communicate more clearly and more effectively the benefits of diverse student populations and a pluralist community of scholars.

One concrete proposition would be advocating specific visa classes for members of the academic community. While I hesitate to offer US immigration policy as exemplary, US universities do have access to the H-1B visa for highly skilled people, which can be held for six years. There are also O-1A visas for people of 'extraordinary ability' in the sciences and education.

Both of these allow people to fill vacancies and to stay for longer periods than the UK academic visitor visa. These US visas are all classified as 'non-immigrant' which means that recipients are not counted against quotas and targets.

It may not be ideal but academic mobility can be maintained, helping universities remain globally engaged. And, by speaking up, the academic community can continue to shape its connections with the wider world rather than leave them to be narrowed and channelled by others.

Alan Ruby is senior scholar at the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy, Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania in the US. An Australian citizen, permanent resident in the United States, alumnus of the London Institute of Education, he works in partnership with colleagues at the Faculty of Education at Cambridge University, UK.