It is clear that BREXIT is a game changer for UK universities; however it is not clear what the rules of the new game will be. I think it is prudent to make some assumptions based on the type of exit which looks likely now:
- We will see a massive drop in EU students coming to study in the UK at undergraduate level (probably over 80%)
- Student mobility through Erasmus is at risk
- Research funding is at risk and many universities are already seeing academics being tempted to look at universities within the EU to continue their careers and research
As well as BREXIT changes universities will also face:
- Shrinking student numbers due to demographic changes
- Continued pressure on international student recruitment bought about by the government’s policy on international student Visas
Therefore universities are facing a ’perfect storm’ when it comes to the international environment. BREXIT turns the EU, a market of over 400 million people on our doorstep, into an international market rather than the domestic market so many institutions have considered it up until now. As a result, little serious work has been done over the past twenty years to build real strategic partnerships with European universities or build robust recruitment strategies.
This means that as the market fundamentally changes many UK universities are not in a position to cope with, or take advantage of, that change. But as in business, market disruption will create opportunities for universities prepared to look at the European market and engage with it imaginatively.
There has been coverage in the press around UK universities looking to open campuses in Europe, and this certainly has considerable merit for a number of institutions, however this type of activity will have considerable financial and political risks. One way to mitigate the risk which we have seen (and are indeed involved in supporting) is the purchasing of Private Universities in markets that are keen to attract UK universities. In our view the keenness of government and politicians, both local and national, is absolutely key to this strategy and some of the Central and Eastern European markets are being open in their wish to attract UK universities to locate branch campuses in their markets.
A less risky approach is to look at developing high quality strategic TNE relationships with universities in different parts of Europe. These relationships have to be based not only on a good academic fit, but also on the vision of the partner university for its own growth. We are seeing that many European universities are looking at how to attract more European students following BREXIT. An event likely to create a new market of around 100,000 students a year. The fact that these students would naturally have come to the UK means that a strategic link with a UK university will help them in this battle to attract new students.
These partnerships can also allow UK universities to divert international students from markets that present Tier 4 issues to partner universities in Europe. Thus helping both the local university in developing international student numbers while at the same time allowing the UK university to benefit financially from involvement in the education of these students.
Further by-products are likely to include the potential to remain involved in EU funded research projects; as well as institutions that UK universities can develop non-Erasmus reliant mobility relationships with.
However, what is clear to us is that attitudes are changing quickly on all sides. In the UK, universities are becoming a little less arrogant in the way they interact with potential European partners as they understand BREXIT brings a subtle shift to the dynamics of the relationship and European universities understand this shift and many are actively looking at taking advantage of it by forming potentially profitable relationships with UK partners.