Exiting the EU: challenges and opportunities for higher education Contents


65.Throughout our inquiry we asked for evidence about opportunities for the higher education sector from Brexit. While some of our evidence suggested there was none to be had,136 others indicated there were potential new directions for universities to focus on. In this chapter we suggest policy approaches for domestic and global issues so the Government can support the sector outside of its exit negotiations with the EU.

Universities and their local regions

66.The Government has recently published an Industrial Strategy Green Paper with a main objective of “increasing productivity and driving growth across the whole country”.137 A common opportunity for the higher education sector recommended in our evidence was to commit to further work with local regions and businesses by engaging with this new Industrial Strategy.138 Professor Haywood told us that it was important universities got more involved with UK industry and business.139 Reasons for the vote to leave in the EU referendum are diverse, but in-depth studies have identified one factor being individuals in some regions sensing they have been left behind compared to other parts of the country.140 Nicola Dandridge said that Brexit was an opportunity:

to look afresh at these issues: how can we maximise the potential contribution that universities can make in their region, not just economically but in terms of social mobility and social cohesion, supporting start-ups, supporting new entrepreneurs, and contributing in every way to the regional and local economies?

67.As mentioned in our introduction, higher education in the UK is undergoing reform, and it is proposed that the newly-created UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) will be the central body for all research funding. Decisions on the spending of research funding is governed in part by the ‘Haldane Principle’, a commonly-used term to refer to the convention that Ministers do not intervene to decide what research funds are spent on or where in the country. This convention is likely to be enshrined in law in the near future, as the Government has included it in the Higher Education and Research Bill under clause 104, which is currently before Parliament.141 The recent Industrial Strategy Green Paper noted that “46 per cent of Research Council and HEFCE funding is spent in Oxford, Cambridge and London” and suggested “new funding streams to support world-class clusters of research and innovation in all parts of the UK”.142

68.Some of our evidence was critical of the distribution of domestic research funding, which compared to EU sources, tended to be concentrated to particular universities and parts of the country. University Alliance, a mission group for 19 universities, said that Horizon 2020 is “less concentrated and more effective at supporting excellence wherever it exists”.143 MillionPlus, a mission group for 17 modern universities in the UK, said that:

Modern universities, which often concentrate on applied and translational research with small and medium enterprises to support innovation and growth in their local areas, receive a higher proportion the research funding awarding by EU sources than they do UK sources [ … ] The investment in research from the UK government is typified by a hyper-concentration of funding into a small number of universities.144

69.At our session in Newcastle, our witnesses welcomed the industrial strategy’s focus on regional growth, but expressed concern that there were still underlying tensions.145 Dr Peter Simpson said that although the industrial strategy had identified place as a key pillar, it was still too loosely defined. He called for the Government to strengthen their commitment to place and “have a genuine UK strategy that thinks about opportunity in different regions rather than opportunity purely at a national level” and not just spend more money in Cambridge, Oxford and London.146 Shirley Atkinson, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sunderland, said that with the industrial strategy and Brexit, there was an “opportunity for some redistribution of some of the research funding”.147 One of the tensions allocating research funding allocation is still investing in world-class research, whilst also ensuring a fair distribution across the country.

70.We agree that researchers are best placed to make detailed funding decisions at an operational level, but we also in principle agree that the Government can set strategic direction—such as by determining that research and development investment needs to benefit all regions—and on that basis, there is a need for a proper spelling out of the relationship between excellence and place. Otherwise, these two notions will logically conflict and prevent a broad funding principle from working as intended. In a post-Brexit future, if we want universities to maximise their support of their local regions, this conflict needs to be resolved.

71.There is tension between the current Government policies to both respect the current convention for Ministers not to decide what to spend research funds on, whilst also committing to ensuring R&D benefits the whole country. The Government needs to clarify its position. The uncertainty over the future availability of EU research funds and the creation of the UKRI means this is a golden opportunity to re-evaluate allocation of domestic funding so that the value of ‘place’ is articulated unambiguously. Otherwise, the Government will fail in its commendable aim to ensure R&D benefits the whole country.

Global partnerships and collaboration

72.A frequent opportunity suggested was for the higher education sector to look beyond Europe for new partners and collaborations. As we discussed in Chapter 2, there is a potential opportunity to expand student and staff mobility to other countries around the world. Almost 50% of all UK academic papers are written in collaboration with an international partner, and these typically have greater rates of citation than domestic-only papers.148 Unsurprisingly, almost half of these collaborations are with European partners.149 On the other hand, the USA, Australia, China and Canada all feature in the top 10 countries the UK collaborates with the most on academic papers.150 The Government has a target to increase educational exports from £18 billion in 2012 to £30 billion by 2020.151

73.Higher education is the fifth largest service export sector for the UK.152 We heard that UK higher education was a strong global attraction and therefore should be at the centre of the new free trade agreements with countries around the world. Professor Andrew Wathey said there was “a real role for international trade missions and joining universities into those missions [ … ] as we begin as the UK to explore new trading opportunities, then joining universities to that programme is a very important potential step.”153 Universities UK recommended that the Government should “establish a cross-Government approach to supporting international research” and promote research collaboration opportunities, through the Department for International Trade, as a “central pillar of the UK’s offer to overseas governments and businesses.”154 The Department for International Trade has recently appointed a higher education specialist.155

74.Some of our witnesses disagreed these were opportunities, but rather in Professor John Latham’s words “a way of mitigating [Brexit]”, or in Professor Stephanie Haywood’s words “new drivers”.156 Nevertheless they accepted that the situation demanded a new approach. Professor Latham concluded that it gave universities the opportunity to “go more global more quickly”.157 Professor Haywood said that although “these opportunities largely exist anyway, many of them”, they could be extended—including existing frameworks such as the Newton Fund, which provides funding for international research collaboration that helps developing countries with economic development, social welfare, and sustainable growth.158

75.Dr Beall discussed the importance of current funding, via the Newton Fund and the Global Challenges Funds,159 to support collaborations with official development assistance (ODA) eligible countries, but also suggested more could be done:

It is vital that we engage with emerging markets. They are absolutely investing in their higher education and research and development sectors. The UK is already very engaged through partnership arrangements and we should support those [ … ] At the same time, we need to think about how we put in place continuing higher education and research partnerships with countries that are not ODA eligible. There is no obvious funding for that at the moment and they are our key research partners.160

76.This last point has been made elsewhere. Professor Steven Cowley, President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford told the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee that, although informal connections with the USA and the UK are strong, compared to the level of collaboration with the EU the relative formal collaborative initiatives with the USA were few.161 If our higher education sector is to thrive after Brexit, it will need help in developing new frameworks with other countries in the world where we have strong existing relationships.

77.Universities should be represented in upcoming trade agreements with countries around the world to support their global ambitions. The Department for International Trade, in partnership with the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Energy and the Industrial Strategy, should develop a cross-Government strategy for international research and higher education.

78.We recommend the Government pursues bold new collaborations with major research countries such as the USA, prioritising nations where relationships are already well-developed, as well as investing additional resources into existing efforts such as the Global Challenges Fund and the Newton Fund. It is crucial any new investment does not come at the expense of existing research funding, which even with the recent increase still lags behind the OECD average.

136 See, for example, Kevin McDonald (XHE0035) para 8, Julia Kennedy (XHE0126) para 7, Lloyd Huitson (XHE0114) para 9

137 HM Government, Building our Industrial Strategy: Green Paper (January 2017) p 5

138 See, for example, Q30 (Professor Latham), Q171 (Dr Simpson) University of Greenwich (XHE0146) para 25, University of the Arts London (XHE0174) para 13, University Partnerships Programme (XHE0170), para 8

139 Q43

140 See, for example, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Brexit vote explained: poverty, low skills and lack of opportunities (August 2016)

142 HM Government, Building our Industrial Strategy: Green Paper (January 2017) p 29

143 University Alliance (XHE0115) para 15

144 MillionPlus (XHE0076) paras 5, 23

145 Qq176, 177

146 Qq176, 177

147 Q191

148 University of Glasgow (XHE0147) para 20

149 As above

150 Universities UK, International higher education in facts and figures (June 2016) p 20

151 HM Treasury, Spending review and Autumn statement 2015, Cm 9162, November 2015, para 1.181

152 Q86 (Dr Beall)

153 Q167

154 Universities UK (XHE0195) appendix

155UK urged to learn from Australia on ‘higher education as trade’”, Times Higher Education, 21 March 2017

156 Qq17, 43

157 Q17

158 Q43

159 See Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, ‘Newton fund: building science and innovation capacity in developing countries’, accessed 30 March 2017, Research Councils UK, ‘Global Challenges Research Fund’, accessed 30 March 2017

160 Q79

161 Written evidence submitted to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, HL paper 85, by Professor Steven Cowley (EUF0019)

21 April 2017