What does Brexit mean for the Higher Education sector?

Wednesday 03-08-2016 - 15:43

Students and universities campaigned hard for Britain to remain the European Union, with data showing both students and university staff voted overwhelmingly to Remain. For this guest blog, Wonkhe's Deputy Editor David Morris explains how the outcome of the referendum presented a shock to most in HE, and where the sector goes from here.  

The vote to leave has come as a profound shock to the sector, and the voting patterns showed a stark divide between those who work in, study in or are a graduate of a higher education institution, and those who are not.

Many have interpreted the vote as a fundamental rejection of ‘elites’ and ‘experts’ who have enjoyed the privilege of higher education. Areas that had a high Leave vote were often geographically distant from universities, whilst university towns and cities showed the strongest support for Remain.

There is clearly a great deal of work to do for universities to regain the trust and goodwill of large areas of the country and to bridge the new class, educational, and geographical divides in the UK.

Beyond that, the process of Brexit will be a long and torturous one for many UK universities. The impact on research funding and collaboration, and also on student recruitment, will require a fundamental rethink of strategic priorities in vice chancellors’ offices. All students and students’ unions will feel the impact.

With a new Prime Minister and a new government, there will also be a knock-on impact on other crucial areas of government policy in which universities have an essential stake: fiscal and spending policy, immigration, industrial strategy, devolution, and trade. 

At the Membership Services Conference, our session will explore how the process of Brexit will work and what the higher education sector’s involvement might look like.

We will aim to draw links between macro-political decisions in Westminster, the City and Brussels and the strategic and operational decisions made by universities that effect students’ everyday lives.

This will inevitably vary between different institutions, from those which are most exposed to a loss of EU students, to those which are most exposed to a loss of EU research funding. However, on the whole, the higher education sector will need to unite to secure the best possible deal when fighting a whole host of over competing interests that will want top priority in Brexit negotiations: the financial services industry, farmers, manufacturers and the interests of the devolved nations and regions. 

We will then discuss what students’ unions can do to ensure that students’ interests aren’t overlooked in the coming scramble, including on vital issues such as visas, tuition fees, teaching staff numbers, university restructuring, student finance, and postgraduate opportunities.

How much of this may be at stake is very unclear at the moment, as the process of Brexit is completely without precedent, but students’ unions will need to be getting ready now to secure the best deal for their members. 


David Morris is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe. He will be discussing the above themes at our upcoming Membership Services Conference which takes place at The Union MMU later this month. Wonkhe will also be hosting a special event - ‘BrHExit: Where next for universities and Europe?’ on Tuesday 9 August.


Education, Features, Union Development

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