A stronger Theresa May but for what, especially in HE?

Simulations of strength become mandatory when nations and leaders find themselves struggling to stay afloat, pushed back and forth by uncontrolled global currents and the growing angst about economic inequality. When the substance is too hard, the gestures take over.

In Turkey we see an extended version of this ‘strategy’ that is not a strategy, at severe cost to political, civil and intellectual freedoms in that country. The same so-called ‘strongman’ politics has appeared in different ways in Hungary and Russia, and in Donald Trump’s United States. And in the United Kingdom.

By fast-forwarding the next national election to 8 June, three years early, the UK government of Theresa May wants to inflate its majority, pulverise the working class base of the opposition Labour Party by taking a strong pro-Brexit position and overbear the Scottish National Party which is looming as May’s real fight-to-the-death political opponent.

But above all the government wants to show the UK and the world that the Conservative Party, the prime minister and Britain itself are steaming ahead, unstoppable.

An earlier Tory leader, Winston Churchill, had the same bravado in 1944 in an argument with Charles de Gaulle of France about the American D-Day invasion. “If Britain must choose between Europe and the open sea, she must always choose the open sea,” said Churchill. In the nostalgic Brexit campaign there was more than one reference to the ‘open seas’ and putting Britain in charge of its own destiny again.

As if. Churchill’s position had some logic in a nation with an Empire. May no longer has that card to play. While the election will strengthen her with fractious backbenchers in her own domain (always essential for a Conservative Party leader), the reality is that never since World War II has the UK’s position and strategy been so uncertain.

May’s re-election will not alter her negotiating position in Brussels, despite her claims to that effect, nor can it define the global pathways ahead. They are there, but they are still to be discovered.


UK higher education now finds itself dealing with that uncertainty. While institutional leaders are moving quickly to grapple with the new imperatives and possibilities, and while every election is an opportunity to push the sector forward, the next five weeks will not resolve the issues of higher education, scientific research and Brexit.

Britain was always ambivalent about its membership of the EU – the stance of the pragmatic centre of British politics was that ‘we can take the benefits of EU membership without signing up to European identity and the full project’, which was the commitment to closer integration over time that for long was deeply felt in much of the continent.

UK ambivalence was never comfortable or stable. It always had the potential to trigger an exit referendum to resolve the question, which was exactly what eventually happened.

Nonetheless, the financial services sector in the City of London built itself into an exceptional position. In higher education and science, by working collaboratively with the huge talent pool in Europe – which is larger than that of North America – via the free movement of migrants and the generous European research schemes, UK institutions blossomed, despite the country’s modest spending on higher education. By one count 40% of recent appointments to the top universities were non-UK Europeans.

A Theresa May with her own mandate ought to finally resolve the issue of what happens to non-UK European citizens working in British universities, many for a decade and more – though the current log-jam in applications for ‘leave to remain’ is a worry.

It is highly unlikely that the old free EU movement into the universities will be retained after Brexit, despite the sector’s requests for special exemption, as ending the open flow of people from Europe is the core issue that has driven Brexit.

It is more likely that a skilled migration scheme will be devised that provides significant openings for higher education and research. The sector needs to find ways of securing more influence with the opaque Home Office. One collateral benefit could be smoother pathways for non-European entry.

Student mobility

It is less clear what will happen to student mobility. There might be scope to retain associate membership of the Erasmus programme to facilitate shorter term stays. However, May is still determined not to exempt international students from the net migration count, despite advocacy to that effect by both brothers Johnson – Jo, the minister for universities and science, and Boris, the foreign secretary – and the potential 30%-40% reduction in international student numbers remains on the table.

Such a reduction would give May the large-scale migration cuts that her backbench and the tabloids want. This issue, which has been unresolved since May took over last July, is a major source of financial uncertainty for UK universities. Perhaps a re-elected May will be under less pressure to deliver on migration.

The hardest issue to read is the future of UK participation in the major European collaborative research schemes. The UK government can be expected to work hard in the Brexit negotiations for UK science. Continued UK inclusion looks like a win-win for all parties – up to a point. A nation that opts out of the common cause loses some of the goodwill that goes with it.

Some European researchers who work happily with UK colleagues will sniff a larger opportunity for themselves. In the last analysis there is no more reason to include a non-member UK than, say, Canada or Mexico. Much hangs on whether a new bilateral form of EU-UK research cooperation can be developed on sufficient scale.

Simon Marginson is professor of international higher education at the University College London or UCL Institute of Education, United Kingdom.