Post-Brexit UK will need to act more globally – Minister

Britain’s Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation Chris Skidmore has pledged to help strengthen the UK’s higher education and research credentials so the country becomes “an international partner of choice” for students and researchers from around the world after Brexit.

Speaking by video on 27 March, as members of parliament were locked in to a series of votes to try to break the Brexit deadlock, the universities minister told the 2019 International Higher Education Forum (IHEF): “If anything, Brexit means we now need to be thinking and acting more globally than ever before.”

He announced that the UK government would soon publish an international research and innovation strategy and “will support early and effective implementation through an independent review of our frameworks for international collaboration”.

But for engagement with European Union countries, Skidmore admitted that the UK could still leave the European Union without a withdrawal agreement and that the government would “make the best of it” whatever happens, pointing to measures such as the Government Guarantee to protect students and academics out of the country on Erasmus+ mobility exchanges and existing Horizon 2020 research projects should Britain leave the EU with no-deal.

Longer-term, Skidmore told the 450 international higher education leaders at the meeting at Imperial College London that his top priority was “to build and amplify the UK’s role on the global stage” and that the recently published international education strategy would help to “bolster the quality and standing of UK higher education” and promote it abroad as a global leader and as a centre of international excellence and strengthen “our credentials to become an international partner of choice”.

The strategy aims to increase the number of international students studying in the UK by over 30% to 600,000 by 2030 and wants to boost transnational education partnerships “to support the pipeline of talent of students and researchers powering UK higher education”.

Chaos and disbelief

But not all delegates and speakers attending the IHEF 2019 conference organised by Universities UK International were convinced by the minister’s fine words.

Chairing the session immediately following Skidmore’s upbeat video message, Baroness Valerie Amos, director of SOAS, University of London, said there was confusion and a sense of disbelief everywhere she had been travelling recently at the chaos surrounding Brexit.

Visiting Ghana the week before the IHEF 2019 conference, Amos, who is a former UK Secretary of State for International Development, said: “What we have lost is that reputation for competence; for being a steady pair of hands. Unless we move quickly to re-establish it, I think we will have long-term and potentially negative consequences, not just for the UK but also for our universities.”

She added that while Britain had not necessarily been liked everywhere around the world, it had “international respect and trust”, but the UK has been “busy at the political level undermining our own strength”.

Universities filling the vacuum

Universities have managed to fill the vacuum as Britain has turned inwards and its global influence continues to wane, said Amos, adding: “But the big question for us going forward is how do we maintain that global position despite government policy?”

She warned: “Our partners can see through the rhetoric for global Britain” and said it was crucial that “we reframe how we think and look at the world and don’t just see the world through a UK lens”.

Richard Cockett, Britain’s business editor for The Economist, also warned the conference about “the big risk” of UK universities and higher education becoming tools of foreign policy through attempts at “trying to bottle soft power”.

He said that while Britain was renowned for soft power through its rock and pop music, through the journalism of the BBC, the Financial Times and The Economist and “the English language and all that comes with it”, most of these established themselves in opposition to government.

“That means to my mind that to flourish and be good exports around the world they are best left alone because they are essentially aspects and expressions of an independent spirit; not of government policy.”

As a former foreign correspondent, Cockett said Britain does not always have a good reputation around the world and “the obsession of the last [UK] Coalition government in driving down immigration has done huge damage to our standing abroad”.

He added: “On the other hand, British education has an extremely good reputation, either with people coming to Britain or going to a British university that has set up abroad in places like Singapore.”

The big strengths of UK higher education are the English language, trustworthy degrees, professional qualification and also networking opportunities, he said.

“I conclude from this that universities should be independent and the British government would serve universities best by keeping at arm’s length,” said Cockett.

Need to relax visa policies

Yinbo Yu, international students’ officer with the UK National Union of Students, tweeted during the universities minister’s video address: “In order for UK universities to become truly welcoming and international, government needs to relax student visa policies beyond just a small extension of post-study leave.”

At the end of the #IHEF19 conference, Vivienne Stern, director of Universities UK International, told University World News: “We are really pleased to hear the minister outline a vision which includes close co-operation with European partners in education and research, championing and protecting the UK’s reputation for high quality higher education and ensuring that the UK is attractive to international staff and students.

“The 600,000 target is particularly welcome as it sends a message that the UK is open and wants to see the number of international students grow. We are also pleased to see the emphasis on mobility opportunities for UK students, and the references to the UK being open to associating to the next Erasmus programme.”

But Stern said they were also pressing the minister to “explicitly support our objective that the UK should associate to Horizon Europe” – the European Commission’s research and innovation programme that will succeed Horizon 2020.

Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist and PR consultant who runs De la Cour Communications and blogs about higher education for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ Association, EUPRIO, and on his website. He also provides English-language communication support for Norwegian, Czech and UK universities and specialist media.