The Brexit-Fueled Death of the British University

For centuries, British schools were the envy of the world. Now they’re scrambling to stay alive.

Cambridge University students float down the River Cam in cardboard boats, part of the annual traditions to celebrate the end of exams, in Cambridgeshire, United Kingdom, on Jun. 17. (Joe Giddens/PA Images/Getty Images)
Cambridge University students float down the River Cam in cardboard boats, part of the annual traditions to celebrate the end of exams, in Cambridgeshire, United Kingdom, on Jun. 17. (Joe Giddens/PA Images/Getty Images) (Joe Giddens/PA Images/Getty Images)

Traveling north from London, the reasons to remain in the European Union become less obvious as each town goes by. Fewer EU workers, fewer EU investments, fewer EU links. The demographics become less favorable, too. Fewer young voters, fewer wealthy voters, fewer educated voters. But an hour into the journey, deep in a sea of Euroskeptics, one county stands apart. Cambridgeshire is small and rural like its neighbors, but its interests and demographics are substantially different. And when Britain went to the polls over two years ago, this much was loud and clear.

The city of Cambridge, whose university counts a fifth of its staff and a fourth of its students as coming from Europe, was among the most ardent opponents of Brexit in all of the divided isles. Two years later, the anger and uncertainty that rocked this university town and many like it still lingers.

Traveling north from London, the reasons to remain in the European Union become less obvious as each town goes by. Fewer EU workers, fewer EU investments, fewer EU links. The demographics become less favorable, too. Fewer young voters, fewer wealthy voters, fewer educated voters. But an hour into the journey, deep in a sea of Euroskeptics, one county stands apart. Cambridgeshire is small and rural like its neighbors, but its interests and demographics are substantially different. And when Britain went to the polls over two years ago, this much was loud and clear.

The city of Cambridge, whose university counts a fifth of its staff and a fourth of its students as coming from Europe, was among the most ardent opponents of Brexit in all of the divided isles. Two years later, the anger and uncertainty that rocked this university town and many like it still lingers.

In the upheaval of the past two years, many industries have had their moment in this troubling spotlight. This past spring, concerns swept the defense sector when MI5 chief Andrew Parker began to worry about Britain getting kicked out of the continent’s intelligence-sharing agreements. This past summer, the panic was around supply chains and supermarkets after then-Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab announced he was working to secure “adequate food supplies.” And this fall, when the head of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, warned that a “no deal” exit from the EU could be “as catastrophic as the financial crisis,” there was a fresh round of worrying about stagnation and unemployment in post-Brexit Britain.

Throughout it all, there has been one industry particularly dear to Britain, particularly vulnerable to Brexit, but peculiarly out of its headlines: British universities. And as the sun now sets on the British Empire, and its military, economy, and global prestige fall behind those of its former colonies, it is only its universities that keep Britain in the lead. With the reputation and excellence they hold, and the leaders and thinkers they produce, British universities will captivate the world’s attention even once little England has lost everything else. And as long as dozens of heads of state continue to receive their education in Britain, as is currently the case, that attention will matter, too.

The question now is whether Britain’s educational landscape—its unique community of intellectuals and academics, globally drawn and locally embedded—can survive Brexit and the uncertain shape it takes. When Britain leaves the EU, like other British industries, the universities will be slapped with a hefty price. At stake are the talent pools of students and scholars these universities rely on for their own renown, the tuition fees and research funding they depend on to find new knowledge, and their fundamental reasons to keep going.

The Brexit bill is coming to British universities. But in conversations with a dozen administrators, professors, early career academics, higher-education lobbyists, secondary-school educators, and students, it’s clear that British universities are hoping to find their own sophisticated ways around paying it—from searching for migration loopholes to fundraising in China. It seems unlikely, however, that all these schools will succeed. And for those that do, survival could still change them, and the United Kingdom, beyond recognition.

Bernard Manuel is the director of the École Jeannine Manuel, a Paris-based bilingual school that is consistently ranked as the best in France. He sends more students to the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge, and the Ivy League than any other preparatory school in the country. With nearly 50 percent of his graduating class matriculating to the U.K., it’s clear that his students are precisely the students whom British universities want. In addition to a robust educational background, Manuel’s students bring a diversity of languages, perspectives, interests, and ambitions. They offer the global cosmopolitanism that is the lifeblood of British universities. But worries abound that Brexit might cut off circulation.

So far, Manuel said, Brexit has not had an effect on the desirability of studying in the United Kingdom for his students. “The British university system is still extremely attractive to French students,” Manuel said, as they hold Oxford, Cambridge, the London School of Economics, and others in a league above what is offered on the continent. This much is borne out in the global rankings—as the British universities sit comfortably near the top, while only a smattering of EU universities are found around the 50th slot. “However,” Manuel noted, “while I am convinced that the exit from Europe of the U.K. is not going to change the desire to go there, it may change the ability significantly.” At St. Stephen’s, a prestigious English language school in Rome, the situation is equally uncertain. “Brexit hasn’t really affected us yet,” said Jack Shull, the director of college counseling there. “But will it affect us? Absolutely.”

The problem going forward will be the tuition status of EU students. Currently, any passport holder of the European Union holds the same standing as a passport holder of the United Kingdom. In England, all U.K. and EU students pay the same rate, which is capped at 9,250 pounds per year, about $12,000, for undergraduates. Overseas students, however, may be charged anywhere between 10,000 and 38,000 pounds, or about $13,000 to $48,000, depending on their course of study. After 2019, EU students will be reclassified as “overseas” and will be subject to these markedly higher fees. “The economic impact of that change could be significant,” Manuel said.

The reason why the change hasn’t happened yet is because the British government has pledged to hold EU tuition rates at U.K. levels for the class of 2019. Among educators in and out of the U.K., however, there is an element of I’ll believe it when I see it. “They have announced that in principle,” said Anne Corbett of the London School of Economics, an expert on Brexit and the higher education landscape. “But it may turn out that when the Treasury is looking at the accounts, it will be more of a fight than universities want.” The uncertainty is felt in Rome too, Shull said: “When my class of 2019 makes their final decision at the end of April, more information is going to be out there. So, things may change.”

On the rare occasion that higher education came up during the Brexit campaign, the tuition hike for EU students was considered a necessity and a victory for British universities. The prospect of converting 138,000 European students from “home” fees to “overseas” fees was billed as the “Brexit boost.” However, that’s not quite how British universities see it. “It’s robbing Peter to pay Paul,” said Catherine Barnard, an expert on EU law and the head of Cambridge’s Trinity College. “Yes, it will bring some more money into the university, but of course we will end up having to pay much more out in scholarships to cover the costs.”

The consequence of this coming change is a British academic landscape that is increasingly hostile to and increasingly expensive for Europeans, who total well over 100,000 students across the UK. And should rates be raised, as the Conservative Party has previously pledged to do, the situation will only worsen.

On the one hand, the excellence and appeal of Britain’s universities will always endure. Neither World War I nor World War II nor the English Civil War nor the fall of the Holy Roman Empire stopped students from wanting to go to Oxford and Cambridge. Brexit will certainly not make the difference. On the other hand, however, Brexit gives European universities an opportunity that they are ready to seize.

One major appeal of British universities is the English-language education, which is a nearly universal professional prerequisite. Some European universities such as IE University in Madrid, Bocconi University in Milan, and Utrecht University in the Netherlands have tried to make themselves competitive by offering English-language undergraduate courses, and to some degree they have been successful among Europe’s bilingual students. It is a trend that is on the rise. After Brexit and largely because of it, the École Polytechnique, France’s top science and engineering school, came on the scene too with an English-language undergraduate program.

In recent months, the recruitment efforts of these schools have picked up, Manuel and Schull said, as Europeans are “undoubtedly trying to take advantage of Brexit.” And their hand is a strong one. It is difficult to say no to studying in Europe, where education is free in Germany and Scandinavia, about $215 per year on average in France, and no more than $2,300 on average per year in the Netherlands. The addition of English-language courses now sweetens the deal. “They have been waiting for the opportunity to increase market share,” Manuel said. “They’re ready.”

Students walk through Cambridge University in Cambridgeshire, United Kingdom, on March 14.( Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images) 

The competition for European students also extends to European staff. At stake are a multiplicity of academic pedagogies and intellectual traditions, and a wealth of reputations and awards. At Cambridge, where concerns are running high, its 20 percent European staff have helped the university win more Nobel Prizes than the next two European universities combined. And with the help of 36,000 European academics across the U.K., universities across Britain and beyond Cambridge have become powerhouses of Nobel prizewinners. Losing the Europeans to Europe, they all recognize, would be a catastrophe.

And it seems this catastrophe is fast approaching. Last year, the Guardian reported that 95 percent of University College London’s top EU researchers had been headhunted by European universities. Should this trend continue, as British administrators expect it will, there is no saying how many European academics in Britain will make the short trip home.

Gustav Meibauer is a 29-year-old postdoctoral fellow at the London School of Economics (LSE). When his fellowship runs up in 2020, he will hit the job market hoping to become an associate professor with as attractive a profile as one might have—multiple research interests, multiple publications, multiple degrees, and multiple languages. But there’s just one thing: Meibauer is German, and in 2020 the Brexit transition that allows him to stay will likely be over.

For now, Meibauer is confident in the work of LSE to keep him in the country. “In the short term,” Meibauer said, “I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing.” His confidence isn’t ungrounded. Earlier that morning, Meibauer had received an email from administrators about an EU settlement scheme that LSE had been invited to pilot. In the program, European staff can remain in the U.K. provided they show proof of no criminal history and pay a processing fee of 65 pounds—about $80, which the university will pay back. “In the long term, however,” Meibauer worried, facing up to the rising prospects of a no-deal Brexit, the possibility of new visa restrictions, and the gradual degradation of the British higher education landscape, “I recognize that shit may approach the fan.”

Behind the scenes, universities are working furiously to alleviate Meibauer and others like him of such short-term uncertainties and long-term crises. One such organization is the Brexit Mitigation Group, which resides at University College London (UCL).

The group was launched the day after the referendum, and in the two years since it has put academics and administrators together to explore and develop ways to minimize Brexit’s damage to the university. One effort of theirs relates to immigration assistance. Like LSE, UCL has begun piloting the EU settlement scheme and also offers to cover the 65 pound fee. On top of that, the Brexit Mitigation Group has rolled out a 10,000 pound interest-free loan, about $13,000, for staff to find external immigration advice if they so choose. And in the event of a no-deal Brexit in which there would be no transition and no soft landing for European staff and students, the group has enlisted an “external immigration checks bureau” that will help process EU passport holders rapidly.

Meanwhile, EU headhunting isn’t anything new, said Conor Rickford, the secretary of the Brexit Mitigation Group, and British universities have generally done well at retaining talent. That’s largely because of a common professional priority to stay in the English-speaking academic orbit. Meibauer described it as the “the English-speaking bias in publishing.”

“The really good stuff gets published in English,” Meibauer said, “so there will always be reason for people to come here and study here and work here.” As a result, Brexit is not the most immediate source of staffing worries. “Staff at UCL tend to cycle between Imperial [College London], Oxford, and Cambridge,” Rickford said. “Those are the ones we would be more concerned about losing staff to.”

It would be complacent, however, for British universities to overlook another motivation for their faculty to leave—one that’s less explicit, but no less palpable, than European headhunters: a feeling of cultural rejection. Meibauer recalled the thoughts that crossed his mind as a third-year Ph.D. student watching his host country vote to leave the EU. “If you’ve had enough of experts, if you don’t like Europeans, if you don’t want us—fine,” he recalls thinking, “I’ll go somewhere else.”

There are many policy dimensions to Brexit and higher education, many of which Corbett, the Brexit expert from LSE, has helped guide. But “this anguish of EU academics,” she worries, is not quite something that can be legislated away. “An awful lot of things are being fractured within the higher education sector by Brexit,” Corbett said. “Years of collaboration, teamwork, trust. There’s much to be anxious about. And what can policy actors do about it?”

Students study in Weston Library at the University of Oxford in Oxfordshire, United Kingdom, on Sept. 13. 2016.(Geography Photos/UIG/Getty Images)

When Britain leaves the EU this coming March, European universities may develop a third edge on their British counterparts. In addition to offering lower tuition to students and surer visas to staff, European universities will also be able to tap into the wealth of the EU’s research funding—and British universities may be kicked out.

EU funding does not make up the majority of British budgets—far from it. British universities can still fall back on student fees, domestic funding, donations, and endowments that have grown over time. But for individual Ph.D. students and institutional laboratories, EU funding from the European Research Council, Horizon 2020, and more can make all the difference. The holes that will be left by a hard Brexit, administrators insist, can be filled by the British government. But as budget debates roil the nation and cuts to the police, parks, and poverty assistance become the norm, it is difficult to see how universities might wrestle back funds—as vital as that may be.

The year Britain leaves the EU will mark the fifth anniversary of Horizon 2020, a highly esteemed EU-wide science and engineering grant program. With an endowment of 77 billion euros ($88 billion), Horizon 2020 has been able to fund research projects on nanotechnology and biotechnology, energy and the environment, health and welfare, and many more subjects. So far, British researchers have been able to secure over 11 billion euros (about $13 billion) in funding, but that well has begun to dry up since Britain decided to leave the EU, according to Universities UK, the advocacy arm for British higher education.

It’s also unclear how to resupply it. In August, the British government announced its intention to “guarantee funding for competitively bid for EU projects.” However, that talk hasn’t inspired much confidence. “I suppose they’re morally committed it,” Corbett said. “Insofar as that’s important.”

It’s too early to tell whether the EU funding architecture will be reconstructed for post-Brexit Britain. The most that universities can do at this stage is to lobby for it. “We are urging the U.K. government and EU to allow for the closest possible alignment for research, including access to Horizon Europe,” said Professor Maggie Dallman, who oversees Imperial College London’s international programs, referring to Horizon 2020’s 100 billion euro ($114 billion) successor. Whether these lobbying efforts for alignment will work, however, and whether anyone in Westminster truly cares seem unlikely.

But it’s not clear where else British universities would be able to turn. Some, of course, benefit from overflowing endowments and generous alumni. Several constituent colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, individually, boast greater budgets than other universities in their entirety. The London School of Economics, which churns out the most billionaires of any school in Britain, may be able to find support too. But few of the U.K.’s 162 universities can say the same. And although the top universities are still the most competitive for European research grants, a government superstructure divorced from university allegiance and personal ties promises more egalitarianism than is otherwise available. And as this superstructure disappears, the non-elite universities may be lost.

Some educators, such as Simon Marginson of Oxford, have suggested that strengthening links with China will be the surest way to strengthen British higher education. “Britain has been very interested in developing an educational silk road, a road to China,” Corbett noted. And it’s clear that China has been interested in developing an “educational silk road” too. For the past decade and a half, the Chinese government has spent billions on its Confucius Institutes, a network of 1,500 programs embedded in the universities of 140 countries that have taken in 7 million students. One London Confucius Institute has already been established at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), serving the entire University of London system, and China’s influence ambitions would suggest that the government is ready to redouble its investments.

But this path comes with its own problems. And although there haven’t been any controversies at SOAS so far, the Confucius Institute’s track record suggests the problems are not far off.

Complaints about the institutes lodged by other countries range from threats they pose to academic freedom to ways they serve as instruments of the Chinese government’s soft power. Only a few years ago, Sweden shuttered its Confucius Institute, the first established in Europe. And across the Atlantic, the rapid rise of Confucius Institutes throughout the United States has left numerous academic, political, and national security concerns in its wake. This past summer, a provision was pushed into the defense budget that withheld federal funding from university programs that interact with Confucius Institutes. Reorienting the industry’s funding channels to China, as some are beginning to suggest, may leave British academia rich in resources but poor in independence.

At this stage, academics recognize that their budgetary relationship with the EU is largely out of their hands. They can only hope now that their government will find ways to keep British academia under the umbrella of organizations like Horizon Europe and the European Research Council. But with academia in the background and a no-deal Brexit in the foreground, it’s unlikely that their hopes will be met. “Higher education is a victim, a follower,” Corbett said. “It doesn’t have a choice in the matter.”

In four months, it will be clear what British Prime Minister Theresa May’s famous declaration, “Brexit means Brexit,” really means. But until then, anything can happen. There may be a Norway-style exit deal, to many people’s liking; there may be a harder Brexit, to the right’s liking. A no-deal exit may come about; a second referendum may be in the making. May could be pushed out as prime minister; a general election may be called.

For higher education, as for most industries in Britain, much hangs in the balance. Although many academics and administrators are hopeful, optimistic, confident even, their plans and programs may be quashed by government mismanagement and inaction. If Britain crashes out of the EU without a deal, there will be nothing that British universities can do to stop tuition hikes for students, keep visas for faculty flexible, and retain the cash and credibility of EU research grants. What is worrying now is just how likely this no-deal outcome has become. With May’s cabinet and party coming apart at the prospect of Parliament voting for her compromise Brexit deal on Dec. 11, the path to no-deal has already been paved.

This will not be the end of British higher education. Hardly. Nor will it necessarily be a great blow to Britain’s top universities—Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, UCL, and others—whose prestige alone can marshal the students, staff, and funding that will likely be lost. What seems certain to be lost, however, is the hegemony. For centuries, Britain’s universities have served as the training ground for world leaders and the stomping ground for top minds. They have hailed from every corner of Europe and every corner of the world. But come March 2019, when Britain leaves the EU, the ability and flexibility of working in Britain will come to an end. The reasons to go there, consequently, will come to an end too.

Stephen Paduano is a journalist based in London. Twitter: @StephenPaduano

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