Brexit breakthrough, but what next for universities?

The immediate Brexit deadlock has been broken. What might this mean for United Kingdom higher education and research, a sector that like the financial sector and much of British business, from cars to pharmaceuticals, has come to see itself embedded in Europe? At the very least, it heralds a major shake-up of the cards.

When the European Commission said that negotiations had advanced sufficiently for it to recommend moving on to stage two, UK higher education leaders were quick to applaud the breakthrough. A major stumbling block has all but disappeared with the stage one agreement on the right of EU27 citizens to stay in the UK and of UK citizens to continue working or living in EU countries.

It is a victory for EU rights, but a victory that has come rather late in the day. The past 18 months of political uncertainty have seen key staff leave the UK, disaffected by the shift in values that the referendum appeared to reflect. However, for those UK universities where EU academics represent 25% or 30% of the staff, it is some solace. The presence of these EU citizens has been integral to the quality of their research and teaching.

The breakthrough on the divorce bill also ensures that UK institutions can continue to participate in existing programmes including Erasmus+, Horizon 2020 and Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions to the end of their current life in 2020. But that is a very short time ahead. To maintain their research standing, universities need to be planning projects with longer lead-in times.

Stage two now opens with at least two clouds on the horizon for UK higher education and research. This is despite the mutual desire on the part of the UK and the EU to keep research and at least some higher education links in place.

British Prime Minister Theresa May has been consistent about the need for continued science and research collaboration with the EU, and for the ‘best and brightest’ to continue to come to the UK. The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier said back in May: “I know how important EU policy is for creating networks and exchanges between universities in all 28 countries.”

UK higher education as a bystander

One problem is that higher education is a bystander in the drama that is being fought out in the Cabinet room of No 10 over what the end game will be – that is to say, its future may well be largely shaped by the outcome of the battle between just 23 people, many of them hostile to or unconcerned about universities.

The prime minister has committed to a ‘hard Brexit’ outside the Single Market because of the referendum result. At the same time, the fudge over another stage one negotiation issue, the border between the Republic of Ireland, an EU member, and Northern Ireland as an integral part of the UK, suggests a continued alignment with the EU’s regulatory framework.

That is anathema to the hardliners who fought to leave the EU ‘to take back control’, offers a small hope for ‘remainers’ and heralds further uncertainty for higher education in the months ahead.

As Barnier pointed out back in May, there is an option for the UK government to retain close links with the EU on higher education and research. It could “continue to support university networking and joint projects as a third country after Brexit [with] a different legal and financial framework”.

That would take the UK into the territory of a free trade agreement or FTA, which is what leading Brexiters want. L Alan Winters, professor of economics at the University of Sussex, has written that the mere fact of having an FTA is not sufficient.

“Reaping the rewards of free trade agreements is less a matter of inserting broad and liberal provisions on research and education than of working out detailed country specific objectives and then engaging in detailed negotiations to make them achievable within an FTA or another agreement,” he wrote.

So, if that is the way things pan out, there is some heavy lifting and a weary road ahead for the sector itself in preparing the government to act on its behalf.

It’s almost forget Brexit, think Europe

The second cloud on the horizon is that the EU has not been standing still. As one commentator on a pro-Remain blog put it: “Europe yawns at UK playpen politics”.

As the months have passed, stakeholders in Europe have moved beyond their initial positions, of ideological commitment to keeping the UK a part of the family, to a realist preference for treating Brexit as more of a technical issue which can be solved outside the top level political arena. The European project will move forward with or without the UK.

The weakening of UK influence has opened up space for other interests. Ambitious visions for the future directions of research, innovation, education and culture are in development, with the publication of the report of the independent High Level Group on maximising the impact of EU Research and Innovation Programmes in July 2017 and the European Commission Communication on Education and Culture issued at the Gothenburg Leaders' meeting in November 2017.

In the area of research, a doubling of research funds and the better integration of research funding and the Structural Funds, among other things, are on the cards. In education, an ambitious agenda for the mutual recognition of high school diplomas, the expansion of Erasmus+ and the development of a network of truly European universities has been set out.

This might all seem pie in the sky were it not for the presence of other powerful positive voices. French President Emmanuel Macron has already stepped in with his vision for a European universities network (a rival perhaps to Oxford and Cambridge).

The upcoming Bologna ministerial conference in May 2018 is programmed to bring new momentum to the Bologna Process and a new era of increased cooperation in education. Its drafting committee meeting in Paris on 13 December should provide additional signals.

As for the European University Association or EUA, with its post-referendum commitment to keeping UK universities “in the family”, there are signs of a shift here too.

The EUA leadership has welcomed the apparent renewed EU engagement of the French and of the Commission, and in particular the privileging of education as having a critical role to play in the promotion of a knowledge-based economy as well as being an integral part of the solution to the challenges of equality and inclusivity.

At the same time, the EUA strikes a note of caution about the risks of “policy fragmentation and the creation of parallel processes”.

Even so, the case looks promising for an alignment with existing initiatives in the European education and research area and hence a strengthened European higher education and research commitment. This would be to cope with the eventuality of the UK’s more marginalised position and to take advantage of new opportunities.

Anne Corbett is a senior associate in LSE Enterprise and author of Universities and the Europe of Knowledge: Ideas, institutions and policy entrepreneurship in European Union higher education policy, 1955-2005 (Palgrave, 2005). Claire Gordon is head of LSE’s Teaching and Learning Centre.