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Into the Storm
Into the Storm

As the U.K. government begins Brexit negotiations, universities ponder an uncertain environment

By Caroline E. Mayer


Within hours of the June 2016 Brexit referendum in which 51.9 percent of voters in the United Kingdom opted to leave the European Union, many U.K. universities created special teams to address their most immediate concerns: student and staff recruitment and retention. University College London convened a Brexit planning group, chaired by its president and provost, with top representatives participating from offices such as communications, development, international, education and student affairs, the registrar, and human resources, as well as the college's unions.

Initially, UCL's group met twice a week, discussing how to reassure staff and students that the institution intends to remain globally engaged, says Lori Houlihan, UCL's vice-provost for development. Slowly, the group has moved from reactive to proactive, preparing video messages ahead of major government announcements. It now meets monthly, focusing on long-term issues such as future access to research funding.

More than a year after the referendum, academics are still trying to understand the reasons for a result that most university communities opposed. The vote to reverse more than four decades of European partnership was a "considerable shock," says the University of Oxford's Alastair Buchan, who was appointed the institution's head of Brexit Strategy in January 2017. A neurologist who led the university's medical sciences division, Buchan's new mission is to coordinate Oxford's post-Brexit policy and look for opportunities, international partnerships, and networks in this new and uncertain environment.

Negotiating the U.K.'s exit will be lengthy and messy. The outcome will determine how freely European and U.K. students, staff, and faculty may move and live within the EU and U.K., the price tag for EU students to attend a U.K. university, and whether U.K. institutions will retain access to EU research funds.

"We never saw this coming, so it is hard to comprehend a new life we never wanted. We tend to think the worst and imagine a dystopian landscape where everything is broken," says Peter Slee, vice-chancellor of Leeds Beckett University, of the post-Brexit future. "Those who voted for Brexit, on the other hand, tend to imagine sunlit uplands of a heavenly paradise here on earth. The truth will lie somewhere between the two."

The vote to leave the EU also raises questions about the perceived value of higher education. "The rhetoric that underpinned the success of the Brexit campaign—and the U.S. presidential election—reflects an anti-intellectual sentiment, which undermines everything that global higher education stands for," says U.K. marketing and communications consultant Tracy Playle.

"We have to start communicating in a different way if higher education is to be part of the solution. This is not an issue for a single university. It's not even a British issue," says Playle, whose firm, Pickle Jar Communications, serves many higher education clients. "Institutions around the world need to collaborate to explain why higher education is valuable to society."

International students accounted for nearly one-fifth of U.K. enrollment in 2014–15, according to a recent study by Universities UK, a nonprofit organization that represents the country's higher education sector. EU students made up more than 25 percent of the international contingent.

The U.K. is the second-most popular destination for international students, after the United States, but Brexit may make recruitment more difficult, says Alistair Jarvis, deputy chief executive of Universities UK. "Prospective EU students could soon be facing higher international student fees, no loans for tuition fees, and an immigration regime with more hoops to jump through," he told professionals attending the CASE Europe Strategic Marketing Institute in February 2017. "As marketers, how do you convince EU students that a U.K. university degree is still a good investment?"

EU applications to U.K. institutions have already declined by 7 percent, Jarvis noted, perhaps marking "the start of a far starker decline." A growing anti-immigration
and anti-foreign sentiment may further deter non-EU applicants.

Positioning opportunity

Just days after the referendum, universities issued statements reaffirming their commitment to globalism, but the University of Sheffield took a bolder step. A week after the referendum, the institution reinvigorated its #WeAreInternational campaign, which it launched in 2013 after some government officials called for limiting work visas. Using personal stories and share-worthy images on social media, the campaign celebrates the importance of diverse international student and staff communities. Sheffield is encouraging other universities to adopt the same message and offering a digital toolkit that includes videos, templates for banners, sample advocacy letters, as well as tote bags and balloons. More than 100 institutions have joined the campaign.

In January, Universities Scotland and the 19 universities it represents launched the #ScotlandWelcomestheWorld campaign to emphasize the international diversity of their campuses. In a 2014 referendum, 55 percent of Scottish voters cast ballots against the country becoming independent of the U.K. But 2016's Brexit results have Scotland's government pushing for another independence referendum, particularly since 62 percent of Scotland's voters chose to remain in the EU. If another vote on independence occurs, Scotland's fate is unclear: It could be out of the U.K., the EU, or both. One-fifth of students attending Scottish universities come from outside the U.K. Determined to maintain—and even increase—that number, the campaign touts the benefits of studying in the country.

"Scotland is in a very unusual position," says Rachel Sandison, director of marketing, recruitment, and international at the University of Glasgow.

As applications from EU students drop, U.K. institutions are reconsidering their recruitment strategy.

"We're not in an immediate panic, but we are reviewing who and how we recruit," says UCL's Houlihan. One concern is that once Brexit negotiations conclude, EU students will no longer have the same tuition-fee status as U.K. students, which would significantly raise prices for them. At UCL, for example, tuition for the 2017–18 academic year for both U.K. and EU students is £9,250 for most undergraduate programs. For non-EU students, tuition ranges from £16,340 for an education degree to £32,670 for medicine.

"These potential changes in fee status could have an impact on applications, especially from the less affluent eastern EU countries," Houlihan says. That's why UCL has increased its EU recruiting, even adding two countries—Belgium and Ireland—to its list. The initial results are promising: EU applicants have increased.

For the past 10 years, the University of Kent has called itself "The U.K.'s European University." It has specialty postgraduate centers offering dual U.K. and EU qualifications in four European capitals: Brussels, Paris, Athens, and Rome. With Brexit, Kent has sharpened its marketing, placing "Remain European, Join Kent" ads in pro-EU publications. It has also boosted alumni networking in Europe, starting groups in Belgium and France.

Taking a global view

Other universities are looking beyond Europe. The University of Nottingham opened a campus in Malaysia in 2000 and in 2003 became the first U.K. institution to establish an independent campus in China. "They're not necessarily a substitute for Europe, but we think Asian campuses will be helpful as we continue to globalize," says Sir David Greenaway, Nottingham's vice-chancellor.

Ironically, Brexit may help some universities financially. The more than 10 percent drop in the value of the British pound since the referendum may make a U.K. education more affordable for non-EU students, whose tuition is more than twice that charged to U.K. or EU students. Such depreciation could increase enrollment of non-EU students by 20,000, which is worth £227 million in fee income, found a recent study by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and Kaplan International Pathways. The catch? If Brexit negotiations cause EU students to pay higher fees, enrollment in U.K. institutions could drop by 31,000, amounting to a net loss of £40 million the first year.

"The oldest universities will gain the most financially, with Oxford and Cambridge standing to receive over £10 million more in fee income each year on average, while less prestigious universities stand to lose modest amounts of income (around £100,000 on average)," the study concludes. Of course, this assumes no immigration caps or different treatment for student or post-study work visas.
The election of U.S. President Donald Trump may also work in Britain's favor. "America has become a less propitious place to work and study," says HEPI director Nick Hillman. "International students who might have gone to the U.S. may now come to the U.K."

The pound's depreciation, however, may adversely affect some U.K. advancement efforts. "It's more expensive to undertake international activities," a particular problem for a field in which personal visits are important, notes Fiona Jones, Kent's head of philanthropy and supporter engagement. The upside: "Major international gifts are potentially of higher value [depending on exchange rates.] Universities could capitalize on this."

Reckoning with a new reality

At many universities, staffing is the most pressing concern since EU residents account for 1 in 6 academic employees. "Our government has given no guarantees that they will [be able] to remain in the U.K.," says Leeds Beckett's Slee. There is some worry, he says, that EU staff "will be used as bargaining chips to secure the rights of U.K. nationals who live and work in other EU countries."

"We've stepped up our communications to reassure staff and students that we're here to help," Sandison says. Like many other universities, Glasgow has added a Brexit section to its website to provide updates and answers on pressing issues. Glasgow has also held symposiums and meetings where leaders, including the vice-chancellor, have addressed concerns.
"We're offering more public meetings now, partly because they're popular and partly because we want to ensure there's a forum for discourse on campus,"

Sandison says. Many events are standing room only with hundreds of attendees. "Brexit strikes at the heart of the community," Sandison says. "People want to come together, show support, and find comfort. They want the opportunity to ask their burning questions and get a direct response."

Twenty percent of UCL's staff is composed of EU citizens, so it's underwriting legal clinics for anyone wanting to apply for citizenship or residency. Nottingham is offering counseling to its 750 EU employees who are considering the same step.

Loughborough University is going further: It will pay the application fees for any EU staff member seeking U.K. residency or citizenship. (Fees range from £65 to more than £1,000.) EU citizens make up about 10 percent of Loughborough's 3,500-member staff, with most serving on its 1,000-member faculty. "The main point is the message it sends to staff: We value them very much," says chief operating officer Richard Taylor. "It's also about the values of our university. We want to remain pluralistic, diverse, progressive, and tolerant."

At Oxford, a chief concern "is that Brexit will herald the start of a brain drain," Buchan says. It will start slowly, he says, "as international faculty and researchers come to the end of their contracts and decide the U.K. isn't the country in which they want to continue to work."

Other countries are working to take advantage of this possibility. Catherine Barnard, professor of EU Law at the University of Cambridge, testified before the House of Commons education committee that Ireland's most recent budget had a line for "Brexit refugees" to help universities attract staff from U.K. universities. Germany, she added, is offering research-based posts with no teaching requirements and is especially eager to tap mathematicians from Hungary and Poland.

Brexit also threatens the U.K.'s research funding. "At the moment we are the tall poppy," Barnard says. "We get more European Research Council funding than any other member state. We are seen as the best. Germany is No. 2 in attracting European funding but significantly behind, and they want some of that action."

As Slee explains, "Our government puts £5.4 billion into the European research networks and programs, but U.K. universities take out £8.8 billion. This accounts for more than 15 percent of U.K. research income and helps sustain some 19,000 jobs in the U.K. Without a deal to allow U.K. universities to remain in European funding networks, there may be a big hit on our budgets with longer-term effects on staff, students, and local communities."

Listening and learning

Winning local community support is critical. The referendum's outcome highlighted a societal rift. According to a BBC analysis of 1,070 local government wards in England and Wales, voting "results were strongly associated with the educational attainment of voters—populations with lower qualifications were significantly more likely to vote [to] leave. The level of education had a higher correlation with the voting pattern than any other major demographic measure." In Oxford, for example, polling districts on the city's southern edge voted 51 percent in favor of leaving the EU while more than 80 percent of voters in the central areas that are home to university buildings and student housing opted to remain. "Brexit has made universities realize they have lost some of their local roots," says HEPI's Hillman.

The referendum was a warning, says Susie Hills, managing director of Graham-Pelton Consulting in the U.K. "The danger is that each of us only hears the views of people like us. We need to understand all viewpoints. Universities need to be as inclusive as possible," she says. "They should be looking at projects and activities that bridge social divides," such as granting more scholarships to disadvantaged students from the area and bestowing honorary degrees to local citizens who bring people together. "In the past, these awards often went to business leaders and establishment figures," Hills notes.

One of Brexit's most important lessons is to remember and learn from those who have been on the losing end of globalization, says Nottingham's Greenaway, who also chairs the Russell Group, a consortium of 24 of the U.K.'s leading research universities. "We've been through a period of rapid change in technology, trade, and globalization, and we need to pay attention to those who have lost jobs and need to gain skills. We need to provide resources and support to those who need retraining."

Since Brexit, Greenaway says, Nottingham is engaging more with the local community. "We have not tried to explain why the citizens in the city voted one way, the students the other. That would involve an implicit judgment of right and wrong," he says. "Rather, we are moving on and working together to bring investment into the city and region." His university also is seeking Chinese investment, with city and university officials traveling to China and entertaining Chinese visitors in Nottingham. "We want to convince them that they should choose Nottingham over Newcastle or even Barcelona," Greenaway says.

"We have to make the best of it," Oxford's Buchan says of Brexit. "It's important for the government to understand that British universities are hugely important for the U.K.'s economy and that being part of Europe has been a key factor in their success."

About the Author Caroline E. Mayer

Caroline E. Mayer, a former business reporter for The Washington Post, is a freelance writer in Arlington, Virginia.




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