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Doing the Hokey Cokey…

22 April 2016

There is a line from the rhyme, ‘Doing the Hokey Cokey’ which is: ‘in out, in out, shake it all about’ with one belief the rhyme, and the dance it creates when the instructions are followed, comes from the traditional Catholic Latin Mass.  The priest would perform his movements with his back to the congregation, who could not hear the priest’s words very well, nor understand the Latin, nor clearly see his movements.

As it stands, that dance may well exemplify our current understanding of the impact of staying in the EU or br-exiting. Some say staying and some say leaving the EU will have the greatest positive impact on the UK’s future – economically, financially, politically and socially. Who is right?

Are we being led a merry dance one way or the other?  Whose tune should we dance to?

The argument may be clearer around the impact of Brexit on higher education. But have sufficient questions been asked to be sure?

The Guardian has featured a number of articles, which, in essence have outlined a British exit from the EU would be ‘catastrophic’ for universities and scientific research, with leading academics and scientists warning it would cost tens of millions of pounds in funding and leave prestigious UK institutions struggling to compete on the global stage.

Vice-chancellors have warned of inescapable damage to centres of learning and teaching, arguing that membership of the EU has been a key factor in British universities’ world reputation for excellence and quality.

With the inevitable cuts in research funding, the knock on effect could be recruiting and retaining top academic talent will be so much more difficult for UK institutions and also could be very detrimental to cross-border collaboration - upon which research thrives. The EU now has global critical mass in research – to which the UK has made an enormous contribution – why risk losing its place at this particular top table? UK universities would no longer be in a position to impact on European research policy or influence major EU partnerships or shape the European Innovation Ecosystem.

In communication with the Vice-Chancellor at University of Liverpool, Janet Beer is adamant EU membership is crucial to the success of our universities – and in particular - university research:

“Research is an international endeavour and does not respect national boundaries. Often the very best research is done by the best minds collaborating in teams working across borders. Working together, UK and European researchers can pool their knowledge, infrastructure and resources to achieve far more together than they could alone. Research undertaken in collaboration with international partners achieves 50% more impact than research undertaken at a national level.

Inside the EU, we are part of the strongest knowledge-producing region in the world and can play a leadership role in the future of European research, science and higher education, rather than choosing to isolate ourselves in an era of growing interdependency”.

European money can be accessed beyond research grants by British Universities. There are many examples of our universities utilising cash and loans from the EU’s regional development funds for capital infrastructure such as laboratories, libraries, lecture theatres and science and innovation centres. How will those loans be raised in the future? What risk is there to the overall student experience if these loans prove difficult to secure?

Conversely, could the savings generated by ending British EU contributions make up those EU funding shortfalls? Different bilateral deals could be struck – as have been done in Israel, Norway and Switzerland - to create pooled resources to draw from…

Looking at the EU freedom of movement rules and under the Erasmus Mobility Scheme more than 200,000 UK students and 20,000 university staff have studied or worked at European universities – including nearly 15,000 undergraduates and more than 2,000 academics in the last academic year. EU students make up about 5% of the UK student body and apparently contribute, several £billion to the British economy. It is not all about the money; the EU experience enriches and enhances lives – something less quantifiable but just as important. As Beer cites:

These EU students help to foster an international, outward-looking culture on campuses - in turn this provides British students with an international university experience preparing them for an ever more globalised world.

Graham Baldwin, Vice-Chancellor at Southampton Solent University has summarised the value of global interface and collaboration, strengthened by our position from within Europe:

Universities like Southampton Solent have Internationalisation strategies underpinned by interaction and engagement with countries all over the world, interaction which is significantly assisted by being in Europe.

The recruitment of European students contributes to the multicultural life of the University as well as the City and wider region.  Students from different cultures and backgrounds provide differing contexts and perspectives thus enhancing learning and informing wider views.  Research and Innovation is enhanced through opportunities to collaborate with leading Universities and scholars, benefitting industry, the economy and society as a whole. Whilst not impossible, much of this would be considerably more difficult to achieve if not in the EU.

Back to the money…if the UK br-exited, universities could charge EU students as much as international students since their fees would no longer be subject to government regulation. Additionally, those EU students would no longer be able to access UK government backed fee loans - so they would have to find the funds up-front.

Will EU students waltz across the Channel to a UK based university and pay the premium or prefer to Tango in Paris?

What will the impact be on British Universities overseas branch campuses if we br-exit? Are students attending such campuses because they represent a unique ‘British’ experience – or an EU one? A key selling point is the unique kind of environment they provide, particularly when grouped together to form international education ‘cities’. One example being Dubai’s International Academic City (DIAC) which is made up of 27 branch campuses run by universities from 11 countries, attended by over 20,000 students of nearly 140 nationalities. Will British campuses be side-lined with their dance card unmarked or embraced, selected and go to the Ball?

There could be an upside of course; this could be good for UK students. Demand to date has far outstripped supply in UK universities, leaving many UK students unable to obtain a place at university – or their university of choice. A fall in EU students would free up places and mean more UK students could get onto the course of their choice. Universities themselves would not seriously lose out financially if they can replace their EU students with UK ones.

Will less EU students mean a fall in the quality of student intake? A place lost by an EU student which now goes to a UK student could well be a place lost by someone more academically gifted. 

Finally, are universities doing enough to encourage its student population to take note, care and register to vote on 23rd June? An informal lunchtime discussion at this year’s AUA Conference concluded its members must not take a stance but facilitate debate and encourage students to make an informed choice – and then act on that choice by voting. This will be the first time many students have a say in influencing the UK’s future. Let’s hope both universities and students play their part and don’t dance around the issue…

The above is a series of thoughts and questions which will come more to the fore the closer we get to the date of the referendum.  

Robert Brault said: ‘Dancing is moving to the music without stepping on anyone's toes, pretty much the same as life.’ The EU Referendum is a dance with bruised shins and sore feet – who will win when the music stops…?

Sarah Shaw is a Partner in the Education practice at Odgers Interim

Categories: Education


Carol Burns at 09/05/2016 09:19 said:

I'm not so sure that there are UK students going without places because of EU applicants.With the removal of the numbers cap and a declining number of 18/19 year olds, places at UK universities have never been easier to get and more of the so-called elite universities were in clearing last year than ever before. Undoubtedly, removing EU students from the ambit of the loan system would benefit the tax payer from a narrow debt recovery perspective but, even now, compared to their home countries, fees for EU students coming to the UK are high - will raising them to international levels really make an appreciable difference?

I suspect the main difference that Brexiteers would make to student behaviour would be a decline in the already inadequate number (currently 200k) of UK students willing to immerse themselves in a full international experience by studying in Europe. Which would be a real retrograde step for the future of UK plc.

Hamish Clifton at 04/05/2016 11:55 said:

Sarah's article points out quite a few of the rationales on both sides. In all conversations I have had or hear those who want to exit always add one other argument, that Britain somehow will regain "sovereignty" . This argument always leaves me believing that underlying those arguments the Brexiter's put forward masks a deeper desire to separate Britain from the rest of the world, as if the exit enhances our sense of identity which is in some way then helps by separating us from others nations. A less intellectual and less humanitarian argument could not exist, and seems entirely counter to the ethos objective and beliefs our universities aim to foster.