What the higher education Brexit debate has not covered

There has been a lot of speculation about the potential impact of Brexit on higher education in the United Kingdom. This has been particularly pronounced with regard to the following three aspects: 1) European Union inbound student mobility; 2) access to EU research funding; and 3) recruitment of EU staff. The forecasted impact of Brexit on each of these three areas has varied significantly, with reports often contradicting each other. Meanwhile uncertainty reigns.

Yet there are many issues that have been omitted from the discussions, from the impact on transnational education, or TNE, to the wider picture of what is happening in international higher education.

TNE allows international students to study for a UK university award without leaving their country of origin. The UK has been a world leader in TNE provision with 701,010 registered TNE students and a net figure of approximately 385,000 TNE students in 2015-16.

According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, in 2015-16 there were 74,965 students studying for a UK provider award in a country within the European Union and the majority of them were in Greece, Ireland, Germany, Cyprus, Spain and Poland.

Despite the creation of the European Higher Education Area, which facilitates the free movement of students and academic staff, “individual governments of EU countries remain responsible for their education systems and are free to apply their own rules, including whether or not to recognise academic qualifications obtained elsewhere”.

Some EU member countries have imposed obstacles and strict requirements for the academic recognition of foreign qualifications, including those obtained by TNE programmes, in order to protect their own higher education systems.

In contrast to the academic recognition of higher education qualifications, under directive 36/2005 EU member states are obliged to follow a more standardised approach to recognising the professional qualifications obtained in other EU countries as well as through TNE arrangements.

For several EU countries such as Greece, Italy and Cyprus it was this legislation that facilitated the recognition of professional TNE qualifications and contributed to the expansion of TNE in the EU.

The most typical example is Greece, the major host country of UK transnational education in the EU with 15,835 students in 2015-16. For many years, the Greek government refused to comply with the EU directive (36/2005), which allowed the recognition of professional rights of graduates who have completed a TNE programme. Even after 2010, when the Greek government was forced to adopt the EU directive, Greece did not effectively recognise any TNE qualifications.

It was not until 2015 that the first TNE graduates had their professional rights recognised in Greece. This came as a huge relief to approximately 50,000 TNE graduates and their families who had been waiting for recognition, some of them for more than five years. This example shows that if it had not been for EU legislation, it is very unlikely that UK TNE would ever have existed in Greece on the scale it does today.

If the UK leaves the EU, the recognition of UK TNE qualifications might be subject to the national policies of member states and not the EU directive, which might affect the recognition of professional rights for TNE graduates.

Of course, one needs to acknowledge and praise the efforts of the UK NARIC in their work to establish bilateral agreements for the recognition of qualifications with NARICs in different countries. However, the uncertainty about the impact of Brexit on matters like the recognition of TNE qualifications creates mixed expectations for existing and prospective students about the future of UK transnational education in the EU.

Indicative of these mixed expectations is what Yannis Ververidis, principal of CITY College – an international faculty of the University of Sheffield – says about the impact of Brexit.

“Brexit has created some kind of concerns, but nothing spectacular. The main worries were associated with the possible implications of Brexit on the recognition of the degrees on the one hand and the unknown on the other. There is no evidence that it has had an effect on recruitment to TNE settings,” he said.

“On the contrary, it has created a significant worry for those who were thinking of going to the UK to study. It might not have affected their final decision now, but it looks as if it most probably will in the future, especially if Brexit brings visa restrictions, no access to student loans and much higher fees.”

Additionally, similar uncertainty and mixed expectations exist among the TNE partners of UK higher education institutions. For example, Ververidis, who is also the secretary for the Hellenic Colleges Association, states: “I think most of the [Greek] colleges are waiting to see what might develop for the time being. However, they are definitely thinking about the alternatives [collaborating with higher education institutions from other EU countries] and I expect that some of them will start exploring other options.”

Considering the scale of UK TNE and its strategic importance for many UK universities, there is a need for further investigation of the expectations and perception of the impact of Brexit on UK TNE.

A wake-up call

The potential for Brexit to disrupt the UK’s higher education relations with the EU should also not overlook the fact that, at a global level, structural shifts have been going on that will affect the position of UK higher education regardless of its future Brexit trajectory.

Given that competition in international education has increased significantly over the past 10 years and that a key feature of this has been the rise of East Asian higher education institutions on the global scene, with a Chinese university (Tsinghua University) now featuring in the top 10 of the world higher education employability rankings for the first time.

Several EU and Asian countries have developed their national strategies and channelled a significant volume of resources into becoming education and research hubs.

As such, the growth of intra-regional mobility has been significant, particularly in East Asia, with China hosting more than 330,000 international students during 2012 alone (and having a target of 500,000 by 2020), Japan having a target of 300,000 inbound students by 2020 and Malaysia also positioning itself as a regional education hub.

As a result, even if Brexit were not to happen, it is still very likely that UK higher education would see its inbound student mobility trends stagnate, if not decline, because of the rise of new destination countries for international students. Therefore, Brexit could be seen as a wake-up call for UK higher education institutions to review their strategy in the context of the new international higher education landscape.

UK higher education institutions need to consider carefully the macro and micro factors likely to affect their market segments. Any international strategic decisions need to reflect on evidence that goes beyond the typical recruitment-focused approach.

For example, UK higher education institutions need to explore new international markets based on demographic trends and higher education demand-supply imbalances. Also, there needs to be consideration of new models of exporting education with the use of technology.

At the same time, Brexit could act as a catalyst for the rationalisation and potential consolidation of the UK higher education sector. Following a period of rapid expansion – which has included the emergence of new non-traditional providers as well as new universities – several UK higher education institutions seem to be stuck in the middle, struggling to develop elements of differentiation to secure a sustainable future.

Brexit and the need to review institutional strategies could accelerate harsh, but vital, decisions that otherwise would have been difficult to take.

Gaps in research evidence

The availability of research evidence is a crucial prerequisite for developing appropriate responses to the different challenges of Brexit, including those that have not received much attention up to now, and there are significant gaps in our knowledge in this regard.

Below, we outline four areas where further research is needed:
  • Understanding the expectations and perceptions of EU students currently studying in the UK. This would help identify the emerging word-of-mouth for UK higher education after the initiation of the Brexit process. As such it could be a lead indicator for future trends in EU student inbound mobility in the UK.

  • Measuring and monitoring the impact of the Brexit. Considering unclear and often contradictory claims about the impact of Brexit, it would be of great value to conduct a higher education industry-wide survey to capture the real impact on each of the three areas likely to be affected, that is, student mobility, research and staff recruitment. Repeating the survey once every six months would enable the development of a barometer for the impact of Brexit on UK higher education.

  • Looking at factors affecting the decision of prospective EU students to study in the UK. There is a need to measure the sensitivity of EU prospective students on factors such as fees, rankings and national evaluations such as the Teaching Excellence Framework. This would enable UK higher education institutions to develop appropriate strategies for addressing the risk of a decline in inbound EU student mobility.

  • Exploring the EU legal framework to identify potential target countries where UK higher education institutions can develop appropriate organisational structures (ie joint ventures) and secure undisrupted access to EU research funding programmes. There is speculation, and differing expectations, about the range of potential policy response options available to UK higher education institutions in response to a possible exclusion from EU research funding programmes. Mapping the higher education legal framework in each EU country against the different types of TNE on offer would enable UK higher education institutions to identify and develop effective strategies for securing undisrupted access to EU research funding programmes.
Vangelis Tsiligiris is a principal lecturer and founder of the TNE-Hub at Nottingham Business School, Nottingham Trent University, United Kingdom. Professor Alex de Ruyter is the director of the Centre for Brexit Studies at Birmingham City University, United Kingdom.