Dismayed students’ bid to save University of Kent’s Brussels hub

Students, staff and alumni made a last-ditch attempt to avert the closure of a British university postgraduate satellite hub in Brussels, with non-EU international students said to be fearful about the legal status of their student visas following the move.

The decision to take the axe to the Belgian satellite known as the Brussels School of International Studies (BSIS) was made public on 30 March 2023 by the University of Kent, which bills itself as “The UK’s European University”.

Students say they were told of the impending closure “via a cryptic email” and that the process has been “grossly mishandled: the decision was made unilaterally, with no transparency or prior consultation with concerned staff, students and local administration”.

It was only after the students affected held a whip-round to raise enough money to send a representative to the university’s main campus in Canterbury to demand a face-to-face meeting that Kent’s vice-chancellor, Professor Karen Cox, travelled to Brussels to meet the 85 students and members of the 13-strong academic and professional staff body based at the BSIS, on Monday 17 April 2023.

A spokesperson for the Brussels-based students told University World News they were disappointed not to receive a proper plan for how the University of Kent would guarantee that masters and PhD students could successfully complete their programmes.

“All we heard were generic words like ‘support’ and ‘we hear your anger’ and not answers to our valid questions about the practical way forward,” the student spokesperson said.

Lack of transparency

“They also admitted that discussions about financial problems in the university had taken place in November and December 2022, but [they] still took in a new batch of students in January and sent out admission offers for September 2023 [for BSIS].”

The student spokesperson also challenged the assertion that the decision to close the Brussels operation was due to financial issues, claiming they had been assured that the financial status “was good to continue” just four months ago. “What’s changed? The lack of transparency is astounding,” said the student.

A spokesperson for the University of Kent told University World News: “Our presence in Brussels has been an important part of our history, with more than two decades of successful study and many notable alumni. However, in recent years we have been running it at an increasing cost and further recruitment and wider pressures mean this is sadly no longer sustainable for the university.

“We understand this news has been unsettling for staff and students at the school, as well as for our alumni from what has been a remarkable 25 years, and we are fully committed to doing all we can to support and accommodate them.”

The university added it was “winding-down” the BSIS “after a series of extensive reviews and internal discussions”, with the intention for “this year’s cohort to be our final Brussels graduates, with no new cohorts next academic year”.

“Teaching will continue as normal until summer 2024, with all current applicants being contacted personally to explore alternative study options at Kent,” said the university spokesperson.

Bid to save the BSIS

The 85 students currently enrolled at the Brussels ‘campus’ say they were ‘blindsided’ by the ‘callous’ announcement and have launched a bid to try to save the BSIS, including through the Twitter handle @bsis_sos and using other social media to get their messages across.

In a statement to European media, the students raise “significant concerns about the status and value of our degrees, job prospects and even the legal situation in Europe for those students on student visas”.

They say they have received reports from students who were to begin this September “that their offers have suddenly been cancelled, leaving them with potentially no school to attend and insufficient time for alternative academic planning”.

The move to shut down the BSIS has also dismayed former staff, with one, who asked not to be named, telling University World News the planned closure has been “badly managed”.

The former staffer said: “It’s one thing to announce the end of a thriving campus and scholarly community, but something else to get it so drastically wrong and to not provide any support or reassurance to the students and staff.”

Michael Sewell, now student recruitment manager at the Antwerp Management School in Belgium and previously marketing, admissions and student recruitment officer for BSIS between 2015 and 2021, said on LinkedIn that he was “stunned at the callousness … the University of Kent has shown towards its flagship EU campus which thrived in Brussels for 25 years”.

He went on to say it was “devasting to hear that staff had their contracts terminated suddenly with no consultation, notice or support. Furthermore, it was upsetting to know that there is no plan in place to protect students.”

Close-knit community

He said: “We always suspected that those in Canterbury never understood the strength and close-knit nature of the BSIS community, and this proves exactly that. Over the years, we fought hard to even be noticed by the University of Kent; we believed strongly in the potential of the campus even when those over the pond simply didn’t get it.

“I'm deeply disappointed by what I've witnessed from the university and how they have handled the ‘winding down’ of a campus that produced outstanding research, thousands of talented alumni and was really a fantastic place to work.”

Among the affected academics is Yvan Guichaoua, an expert on Sahel-Sahara politics in Africa and member of the editorial board of AfriqueXXI, who tweeted that he received his termination letter within an hour-and-a-half of hearing of the impending closure on 30 March.

He tweeted: “It’s amazing how the U of Kent management overlooked not just the practical implications of their decision for everyone negatively impacted but also the political reaction.

“This is what happens when ‘winding down’ the activity of a centre actually means destroying a strong, cohesive and vibrant community.”

He added: “I never believed that academic staff (good at teaching, good at REF [Research Excellence Framework], good at research fundraising) could be thrown under the bus in such a brutal, disrespectful way, including by peers turned managers.”

The University of Kent’s BSIS was established in 1998 as a multidisciplinary postgraduate school and the University of Kent’s website still describes it as “a strong central hub in Brussels, ensuring we maintain our close political ties with the EU and support wider plans for cross-border working”, including via a network in Northern France and Belgium and specialist centres in Brussels and Paris to provide “international excellence in postgraduate delivery”.

Kent closed its programmes in Athens and Rome last year, but Kent’s spokesperson claimed in a statement: “Our international identity remains central to who we are as a university, with our regional ties within Europe remaining strong through both our 3i network with the universities of Ghent, Leuven and Lille, and our ongoing presence in Paris.”

Asked by University World News why the threatened students and at least some of the staff cannot be transferred to the Paris campus, particularly those who may face visa challenges in coming to the UK to complete their studies, the university’s spokesperson said: “BSIS is not a campus in the traditional sense – it is located in a shared building – and more of a postgraduate centre. Our Paris centre is a humanities offer, which operates on a completely different partnership model to BSIS.”

Post-Brexit challenges

Talking about the post-Brexit challenges facing UK transnational education, or TNE, in Europe rather than Kent’s closure of its Brussels satellite centre specifically, Dr Janet Ilieva, founder of the Education Insight consultancy, told University World News: “While demand for UK TNE programmes remains buoyant, there are significant supply-side challenges mainly related to the UK’s change in status from EU country member to non-EU member.

“The EU work regulations are affecting UK university staff teaching TNE courses locally, resulting in some universities experiencing difficulties in employing UK academics to deliver the TNE courses.

“As a result, some of the TNE programmes may be outsourced to local staff or staff from other countries. Some academics perceive this shift as a reputational risk.

“It is highly likely that the confusion around the legal status of operating in the EU as a non-EU entity, the change in contracts, and rising operational costs may lead to some courses being discontinued.”

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.