This article was written in July 2016. Now, in June 2019, we know more about most of the points made below, and what we know confirms that Brexit is likely to damage Education UK, but the key question of how or whether Britain will leave the EU remains unresolved. 

Amid the talk of the economy, immigration and sovereignty, the impact of Brexit on education UK hasn’t had much of a look in. CIFE Vice-Chair and Principal of CCSS in Cambridge, Stuart Nicholson, decided to put that right by seeking out the views of an expert.

As Vice-Chair of CIFE my views are often sought on many issues. But when it comes to views on what the educational landscape might look like in a post-Brexit world I decided it best to seek out an expert – Martin Bojam, Education Sector Lead partner at Penna, and an experienced consultant on international and domestic recruitment to the UK Higher Education sector.

While Martin’s first comment was “Let’s start by accepting one single thing, no one really knows anything”, he was able to guide me through the issues in as even-handed a way as possible, starting with the prospect for UK students wanting to study abroad. “We are inclined to be insular in the best of times, yet in a globalised world, that doesn’t work so well,” he says. “UK students studying abroad have the benefits of an international outlook, and the opportunity to form international networks as well as understanding different cultures.

Through Erasmus, the student exchange programme, 200,000 UK students have the opportunity to study abroad and statistics show that they are over 50% less likely to suffer long-term unemployment than those who hadn’t studied abroad. Of course exchange programmes would continue, but it would become more difficult for those who wished to study abroad, atmospherically, administratively, eventually perhaps even culturally.”

And what about research? “It’s been said that  ‘collaboration and support will collapse’, but I think that unlikely. Scientists, researchers and academics are independent-minded and tend to be pragmatic, so they will seek out the best collaborators.  Apparently research with international collaborators is more than 50% more effective – though of course we can seek collaboration anywhere, exchanging EU countries for the Far East perhaps.”

Would research grants disappear?  “Probably the loss of EU grants would be significant, perhaps running into billions. Over time, one can imagine that the effect of some disengagement would be likely to increasingly isolate ourselves. It’s perfectly true that globally we perform very well at tertiary level – e.g. Nobel prizes per capita – and there is no reason to believe that Brexit itself would affect that other than in the long term.”

And what about students coming here to study? Would we still attract the brightest and best staff and students? “EU students make up five per cent of the higher education student body and EU staff make up 15% of the academic staff in UK institutions.  In 2014, over 50% of European Research Council Consolidator Grants awarded to UK universities were won by academics who came from other EU countries.  I think coming here would inevitably become more difficult as part of the process of ‘securing our borders’.

It is said that non-EU students would not be affected by Brexit – but recent polling (and I take it with a little pinch of salt) indicates that for non-EU students, a UK outside the EU is a less attractive destination, and that is even more the case for EU students.  At the very least Brexit must make it more likely that staff and EU students will consider other destinations.

Finally, on a more positive note, there’s the consideration of cost. Although decisions on education aren’t swayed much by small cost changes, if the pound sterling loses considerably against the dollar, studying in the UK becomes cheaper and that would help schools and universities alike.”

What impact could this have on the UK economy? “Our education exports are very significant in economic terms – some £17.5bn.  In many areas the student population is a (or even the) major contributor to the local economy. Although the number of EU students is not significant in most locations, there are some where they are of substantial economic importance.

Summer schools and especially language schools could be very badly affected, as a high proportion of their income comes from EU students.  I don’t think numbers would totally collapse, but if one assumes a much tougher visa entry regime it becomes more difficult, and where it’s difficult people will find other alternatives. And that’s probably the most prevalent danger overall – people have choice, and will exercise it, to our detriment.”