UK universities are unprepared for Brexit and are waiting to take their cue from the state, which itself is more focused on the impact on financial services, for example, above higher education.

Very few universities have demonstrated – in ongoing research – that they are constructing scenarios for post-Brexit outcomes and activity and/or actively pursuing new institutional links beyond the EU.

This, in a nutshell, is the state of play around Brexit planning, as observed by Simon Marginson, Director of the Centre for Global Higher Education.

In his presentation, “Brexit and uncertainty: UK university approaches” delivered at UUKi’s IHEF event, Marginson unveiled preliminary findings from interviews already carried out with a number of institutions.

There was a “not on my watch” scenario being played out, he said, and stakeholders had been hitherto responding to Brexit with emotions brought about by a view of how uncertain the planning environment seems to be.

He shared comments such as: “We’re all finding it too hard to think of a strategy … I think you have to recognise that not all of it is in your control and you have to have several strategies.”

Even on EU-sourced research funding, which UK universities see a net gain of £3.5 billion from, Marginson observed, there was a complacency that the worst-case scenario of no ongoing research funding relationship would not happen, given the UK’s pivotal role in research relationships.

However, many had felt similarly secure about the predicted ‘Remain’ result of the referendum, he remarked, cautioning against a forecast that “common sense will prevail” in a post-Brexit decision of political and financial magnitude.

Contingent funding for STEM research might be more readily sourced but in fields such as archaeology, one-third of research revenue was at risk.

Universities are “used to being looked after” by the state, Marginson noted. He said new partnerships between UK and overseas universities are possible “with good leadership at both ends”, but there had been relatively little action reported thus far.

“No one was talking about [new] relationships with China, South Korea,” he said of initial interviews conducted, observing that countries such as Australia, Canada had stronger research relationships with China than the UK does.

Marginson outlined best, worst, and median-case scenarios for factors ranging from outbound study, EU staffing (almost half of merit-based staff in some departments are EU), research, EU and non-EU international student revenue.

Given the current policy environment and impending MAC report publication, Marginson said it was likely that universities and government might look to enhance non-EU student recruitment to offset some Brexit impact.

An inability to access EU loan funding upfront could significantly impact enrolment, particularly on some postgraduate courses offered.

The political environment was unprecedented, he acknowledged, but “doing nothing is not an option”.

The professor of international higher education at UCL’s Institute of Education quoted Voltaire in his final slide: “Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position, but certainty is an absurd one”.

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