Joy to the world? Or tears on its pillow? The hopes and fears of Brexit

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Joy to the world? Or tears on its pillow? The hopes and fears of Brexit

By Tony Martin
Former Vice President
QS Quacquarelli Symonds

With the help of a distinguished panel of Asia and Pacific based educationists, Tony Martin attempts to define the prospects for their regional universities of the UK’s impending separation from the European Union.

When the UK unexpectedly voted to leave the EU on 23 June 2016, it was as if the earth had collapsed, the seas had rolled in and the heavens had exploded, all with a single thunderbolt.

Major global decisions and events have historically caused sea changes in universities’ international fabric. Iraq, Iran and Libya were by far the main sources of international students for the UK in the 1970’s until war, revolution and terrorism took over and the flood of students reduced to a trickle. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s decision in 1981 that UK universities should charge full fees to foreign students saw Malaysia cancel its state-funded MARA scholarships, which decimated the number of Malaysian students in the UK. More recently, apparently xenophobic attacks on students from India in Australia severely damaged student flows and relationships between the two countries.

The implications of Brexit are likely to be even more far-reaching than these historical examples, not just for UK universities and their domestic stakeholders, but also for all their many global partners and collaborators. The implications are also more complex, and areas of doubt and risk are many. Will the UK economy shrink severely, leading to massive cuts in public services which – as primarily state-financed institutions – include its universities? On the vital matter of their research funding, to which the EU currently makes a huge contribution, will the UK government – or other sources – be able to match these essential amounts once the EU ceases to provide?

There are other issues. All UK universities and the main political parties were strongly in favour of the UK remaining in the EU, but the vote of 52% of the UK population was to leave. Does this mean that a high tide of isolationism and xenophobia has been revealed in British society, and that international students and faculty are no longer welcome in UK communities? How will mobility – inwards and outwards – of students, faculty and graduates be affected?

Gazing in to a crystal ball

Writing six months on, the initial shockwaves have subsided and the slow preparation of applying for the actual divorce has commenced in the UK. Debate on the issue, however, has been far from slow with brontobytes of wide-ranging comment and conjecture about Brexit and its potential wide-ranging effects populating the world’s media and its discussion forums.

The onset of Brexit has already had massive effect worldwide and, as we have seen, a similarly populist vote in the USA has elected a president whose individualist stance is far removed from the nature of his 44 more politically conventional antecedents.

Here we gaze into a crystal ball in an attempt to prophesy how Brexit might affect both universities and their students in the newly developed and developing countries, and whether a major change in the way UK universities operate internationally might bring them benefits or disadvantages.

QS Showcase has consulted a panel of leading educationists in Asia and the Pacific to hear their personal and professional views on the likely enduring impact of Brexit on the emerging universities of the world. They range from deep pessimism and concern to brighter hopes of eventual benefits in a new world order.

Our distinguished panel is:

  • Professor Arnoud De Meyer, President, Singapore Management University
  • Ms Winnie Eley, Deputy Vice Chancellor (International & Advancement), The University of Newcastle, Australia
  • Professor Nigel Healey, Vice Chancellor, Fiji National University
  • Dr Alison Lloyd, Director of Institutional Research and Planning, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University
  • Professor (Dr) Gurinder Singh, Group Vice Chancellor – Amity Universities, India and Worldwide

The panelists’ individual biographies appear at the end of this article.

Bad for Britain and sad for Europe

Arnoud De Meyer feels that the UK and the EU in general and their universities in particular will suffer as a result of Brexit: “As a convinced European I felt that Brexit was a real regression for the whole of Europe. I am convinced that in the long run it is bad for Britain because whatever the outcome of the Brexit negotiations will be, the European networking of British research teams will be diminished.

“The UK will also become less hospitable to foreign scientists and engineers, and it will thus miss out on a lot of international talent in its research teams. It is sad for Europe, because the UK has some outstanding universities, and their contributions to the European.

An opportunity for South East Asia?

“What will this imply for us here in South East Asia? I tend to see it as an opportunity,” asserts Prof De Meyer more optimistically.

He explains: “Some excellent research talent that normally would have stayed in the UK will now look for other places to pursue their research interests. Research universities in this part of the world will now become more attractive to returnees, and to post-docs or junior faculty who are looking for a place where they can build a career. Some of our brightest talent will still pursue graduate education in the UK, but the prospect of building an academic career in the UK is now definitely far less attractive or assured.

“I am convinced that high quality professional master’s programmes at our universities now have the opportunity to retain some of our local students, and attract international students who otherwise would have gone to the UK. Study and job prospects in a more parochial UK that is likely to limit the number of student visas will become less attractive. If we play our cards well, we can offer a really interesting alternative for the internationally mobile students.”

Prof De Meyer concludes: “When the UK leaves the EU, I am also convinced that young Brits will look at other destinations than Europe for their own international experience. At SMU, for example, we will vigorously pursue our collaborations with British universities. I am convinced that our exchange programmes or double degree programmes will become more attractive for their students.”

Alison Lloyd is less pessimistic about the prospects for UK universities and students. To begin with, she points out that nothing is yet set in stone: “Although the Brexit decision has created vast uncertainty for UK institutions, the changes that will occur are yet to unfold,” she counsels, and continues on a positive note: “To maintain their leading global position, UK universities are apt to work even harder in the turbulent times ahead. Part of this may entail looking beyond the EU for access to research funding, as well as staff and student recruitment.”

Boosting UK grads’ employability through bilateral agreements…

Alison Lloyd sees a key potential benefit in increased international experience: “Universities in newly developed and developing countries may stand to benefit. With student mobility high on the agenda of internationalisation at universities, opening up more international collaborations and study abroad opportunities for UK students in Asia and other developing regions can benefit students’ career readiness. Several studies have shown that employers around the world prefer to hire graduates with international experience; strengthening bilateral agreements would provide the means to boost employability of UK graduates.”

… and UK universities’ research funding through new collaborations

Research funding is another area where Dr Lloyd sees the prospect of new horizons: “Traditionally, the EU has provided substantial research funding opportunities for UK universities. Brexit may stimulate the seeking of more international research collaboration with partners outside of the EU, which is good news for universities from developing countries. Collaboration is the foundation of innovation and excellence. By pooling talent, expertise and infrastructure with international partners, UK universities can try to tap the growing funding avenues in developing countries to undertake research which continues to improve people’s lives and contribute to advancing sustainable knowledge economies.


Winnie Eley also sees considerable proactivity amongst UK universities to counteract the negativity that the uncertainty of Brexit is engendering: She observes that: “There is an overt nervousness that UK universities are perceived as unwelcoming, inaccessible and UK centric.” But she also sees that:“The hashtag ‘We are International’ is popping up more than regularly on social media since Brexit. The significance for UK universities to join forces and amplify the voice that international students and scholars are welcome, is being stated more prominently than ever before. There is an urgency to show solidarity across the UK higher education sector and     to communicate that Brexit neither means nor implies an insular sector. UK universities are actively addressing the challenge of adapting and managing their global standing, recruitment and partnerships from now on.”

No one-size-fits-all approach

“UK universities are at a juncture of rethinking how best to operate in an increasingly competitive global higher education landscape,” Ms Eley continues. “Some are contemplating transnational education to maintain a diverse student community and global connectedness. Some are calibrating their engagement within the regions, their programme offerings and research focus. They are strategising both jointly and individually. There is no one-size-fits-all approach which would work for all UK universities.”

Ms Eley concludes on a cautious note: “One thing is certain at this point   in time – tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today. Surely UK universities are repositioning for their futures – or not?”

Fees fluidity and new collaborations for India

As group vice chancellor of India’s largest and most globally present private university conglomerate, Gurinder Singh sees Brexit as a significant opportunity for India’s higher education, and has a philosophical view of the UK’s popular decision to quit the EU: “Britain had a distressed relationship with the EU since the start and has made different endeavours to split far from it. Britain’s exit from the EU is expected to open up critical business and economic prospects for the Indian education sector. Education in UK will likely become more affordable and we might see UK charming candidates with more incentives.”

However, he sees uncertainty in the crucial area of student fees: “EU students who are currently eligible to pay EU rates at UK universities could find that tuition fees become more expensive if they are charged at international student rates instead, or if they are not eligible for EU funding and loans. For worldwide students from outside the EU – for example Indian students who are already required to pay international rates – tuition fees should not be directly affected by Brexit. But there are factors that could affect the cost of study. For example, if the pound remains weak against students’ home currency, these students ultimately will find themselves better off when they pay tuition in sterling.”

On the other hand, there is the risk of things going the other way, as Dr Singh points out: “If universities suffer financially after Brexit, whether because of a lack of EU funding or because fewer EU citizens decide to study at UK universities, they might decide to increase fees for international students to make up for the deficit.

“India, being a country with highly skilled labour and with a population well versed in the English Language, could have a distinct advantage,” Dr Singh concludes on an optimistic note. “There is the possibility of better admission rates for Indian students as the number of EU applications may fall. What is more, Brexit is potentially favourable for research and innovation as, with reduced research grants at UK universities, the possibility of joint research and other collaborations with Indian universities may rise in order to lower the total cost of research.”

“In Fiji, our fear is that Brexit ends this relationship”

Nigel Healey, as a vice chancellor in Fiji, expresses pessimistic views that reflect Brexit’s potential impact on other British Commonwealth countries and other small Pacific countries as well as on his own: “News of the Brexit vote was greeted with dismay in Fijian educational circles and, presumably, in other developing Commonwealth countries. The impending divorce between the UK and rest of the European Union matters for two reasons.

“First, higher education in Fiji is closely aligned to, and remains connected with, UK higher education. We look to the UK for guidance on curriculum development, quality assurance and the management of research. Our organisational structure aligns completely with UK universities – heads of departments, deans, pro-vice-chancellors, colleges, senate and council.

It gets worse. Professor Healey continues: “Second, the European Union is the most important donor in the higher education landscape of the Pacific. Erasmus+ funds student and staff mobility and many major curriculum development programmes are financially supported by the European Union.

“For us in Fiji, there has been a valuable coincidence of the UK and European Union, with Brussels funding initiatives which allow us to send students and staff to the UK. Our fear is that Brexit ends this relationship. In particular, the concern is that UK’s exit will weaken the European Union’s commitment to the English-speaking Pacific countries, in a way which adversely impacts the development of higher education in the region.”

Exploitation to advantage of all? Or institutional paralysis?

The Brexit deed is done, and the mettle of the universities of the UK will now be rigorously tested. They include many highly successful global institutions of learning, and all are vital communities with a highly cosmopolitan fabric. Most have strong historic links with their counterparts in the newly developed and still developing countries of Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Can they now capitalise on their strengths to manage, even exploit, the traumatic change that’s been foisted upon them? Can this be to the advantage not only of themselves but also that of the developing world of higher education and human knowledge? Or will their inherent conservatism lead to institutional paralysis, a significant decline in quality and output, and, as a result, a massive loss to that world? Only time will tell.

Professor Arnoud De Meyer is president of Singapore Management University (SMU) before which he was professor of management studies at the University of Cambridge and director of its Judge Business School. For 23 years Professor De Meyer was associated with INSEAD and was the founding Dean of INSEAD’s pioneering Asia Campus in Singapore. He holds many top level posts across a range of activities. These include: board member of National Research Foundation (Singapore) since 2010 and of Singapore Symphonia Company Limited since 2013; member of the board of Dassault Systemes (Paris) since 2005; non-executive director of Singapore International Chamber of Commerce and of Temasek Management Services Pte Ltd since 2010; and chair of the Scientific Advisory Committee of VITO Flemish Institute for Technological Research since 2009. His research interests are manufacturing and technology strategy; the implementation of new manufacturing technologies; the management of R&D; how innovation can be managed more effectively; project management under conditions of high uncertainty; management and innovation in Asia; the globalisation of Asian firms; and the management of novel projects.

Dr Alison Lloyd is director of institutional research and planning at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (HK PolyU), responsible for strategic planning, performance monitoring, institutional research, and analytics. She also oversees the university’s participation in international rankings. Coming from management consultancy, Alison joined HK PolyU’s Faculty of Business as an associate dean where, among other areas, she led internationalisation and the branding and marketing of all programmes. She is an award-winning educator at the university with research interests in branding, retailing, and services marketing. Her work has been published in leading academic journals in the business sector. Alison serves on a number of major bodies, including the Hong Kong Brand Development Council, and The Investor Education Centre. She is also a Director of the Fair Trade Hong Kong Foundation.

Winnie Eley is deputy vice-chancellor (international and advancement) of The University of Newcastle, Australia (UON). As a member of UON’s Executive Committee, Winnie is strategic leader of the university’s inaugural global partnership plan, whose committee she chairs and also chairs UON’s World University Rankings Advisory Group. Winnie has over 15 years of senior management experience in education as founding director of international affairs at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University; deputy country director of the British Council in Nigeria; and director education services for the British Council in Hong Kong. Winnie holds a BA in education from the University of Nottingham, where she continued to complete an MBA and postgraduate research experience. Her recent professional development has included managing innovation strategically at the Cambridge-MIT Institute and authentic leadership programme at Harvard Business School.

Prof (Dr) Gurinder Singh is group vice chancellor – Amity Universities and is founder director of many of its core activities. He is internationally recognised as a professor of management and is known amongst academics as an institution builder, writer, professor, distinguished academician, top class trainer, international business expert, and as a champion of hearts. He holds a doctorate and a postgraduate degree in foreign trade. He has more than 20 years’ wide-ranging experience in institution building, teaching, consultancy, and research and industry. Dr Singh is the youngest founder pro-vice-chancellor of Amity University. He has helped to establish many Amity campuses abroad and to implement the Pan-African e-Network Project, which has benefited more than 20,000 African students with online education. He took an 18-month sabbatical in industry and spearheaded the strategic operations of a renowned industrial group with a turnover of INR 20,000 crore (approx. US$3 billion) as its CEO. Dr Singh has spoken at many prestigious international forums and has received more than 25 international and national awards.

In 2016, Professor Nigel Healey became vice chancellor of Fiji National University. Previously he was a pro-vice-chancellor at Nottingham Trent University and headed its College of Business, Law and Social Sciences. He has served as pro-vice-chancellor of the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, and as dean of Manchester Metropolitan University Business School. His research interests are the internationalisation of higher education, transnational education and higher education policy and management. Nigel has advised governments, including those of Russia and Belarus, and managed multinational research and economic development projects. He is chair of the academic conference committee of the QS Asia-Pacific Professional Leaders in Education (QS-APPLE). He has served terms on many top-level education boards, committees and councils in both the UK and New Zealand and is a citizen of both countries. Nigel holds a BA Economics from the University of Nottingham, an MA Economics from the University of Leeds, an MBA from the University of Warwick and a DBA from the University of Bath.