Universities UK may have backed Remain but we now want to embrace the opportunities of Brexit

Universities UK may have backed Remain but we now want to embrace the opportunities of Brexit

The referendum and its aftermath have been highly divisive. Given the scale and complexity of the issues in play it is inevitable that there were, and still are, strongly held views on either side of the argument. For those on the Remain side of the argument – of which I was one – it was common to talk in the early days following the result of our reaction to the result as a kind of grieving, with distinct phases, beginning with shock, denial and even anger. However, for me, the defining image of the referendum was a photo I took on the morning following the vote of my colleagues at Universities UK gathered around a table at 7am, with strong coffee, working out what we needed to do to adjust to the reality of the result.

From the outset, we made it clear that we saw our responsibility as making the best possible contribution to the Brexit process and the UK’s success post-Brexit. We respect the referendum decision, and the sentiments which produced it, and we took note of the Government’s expressed desire to strengthen relationships around the world as a positive invitation to suggest ways that we could do this in the fields of education and research.

We swiftly initiated programmes of work on the opportunities as well as the challenges we foresaw. We communicated swiftly, frequently and positively with our European partners and to prospective European students. We hit the road and organised a series of dialogues with our major partners in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and Italy, seeking to understand all the options for post-Brexit collaboration, particularly in student exchange and research.

We also recognised the opportunity to review the UK’s approach to collaboration with non-EU partners, particularly in advanced economies. Within weeks of the vote we established a working group with Australian university leaders to explore the potential for universities to benefit from future free trade agreements, and drew on their experience to inform our own understanding of the opportunities these might present. We commissioned research to map the inclusion of higher education and research in existing Free Trade Agreements to inform early thinking at the Department for International Trade, and we doubled our effort to back the GREAT campaign to promote the UK, including as a study destination.

Universities have a strong stake in the outcome of the UK’s negotiations with the EU about our future relationship. It is essential, if the UK is to retain its world-leading position in higher education and research, that we are able to attract and retain great staff and students from across Europe. After all, it’s the people who deliver teaching and research who make our universities great. And we want to continue to participate in programmes such as the Framework Programmes for Research and Erasmus+ which are already open to non-EU participation on an associate country basis. We believe that this is both possible and in the national interest, as well as in the interest of our European counterparts. Since higher education and research are by their nature international endeavours, we think the UK’s continued participation in these areas of cooperation should form a central plank of the future ‘deep and special’ partnership which the Prime Minister has described. But in making this argument we are looking forward, and not back.

We also believe that universities have a role to play in providing platforms for communities to debate the UK’s post-Brexit future. For this reason we have supported Prosperity UK’s initiative to host events in universities across the country, bringing together those from both sides of the referendum argument to contribute ideas about how the UK can, as they put it, ‘make Brexit a success’.

I do not wish to underplay the very significant concerns which we have about the consequences of leaving the EU. But we also recognise the opportunities which are now opening up, including for a rethink on policy in relation to international student visas, and our relationships with non-EU advanced economies.

Universities UK may have campaigned for a different outcome to the referendum, but we see it as our responsibility to play a full and constructive role as the UK charts a new course.

Photocredit: University of Liverpool