A strong higher education sector can help retain UK’s global influence

Published on 18 May 2017

Adam Tickell

Vice Chancellor, University of Sussex

The UK’s higher education sector and its real-world impacts – whether through helping to bring an end to the ebola crisis in West Africa, creating the first blueprint of a quantum computer or working with policy makers on trade issues- play a critical role in helping the UK maintain its soft power. As the UK prepares to exit the European Union and reposition itself on the global stage, a new UK government must continue to support the sector. Without the necessary regulatory, financial and social investment from government, institutions such as the University of Sussex and the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) will be challenged in how they can positively add to the world’s prosperity, stability and sustainability.

World-famous universities and higher education institutions

Universities contribute significantly to the economy and their impact extends well beyond campus boundaries. They enrich the cities and communities they are based in and foster productive and transformative collaborations with business, charities, and policy makers. Here in Brighton an independent study (2013 report) confirmed the gross economic activity of the University of Sussex was worth more than £500 million, with the institution supporting 6000 jobs. The international staff and students that work and live in Sussex bring a diversity and vibrancy to the local area. The overall contribution to the UK economy of international students is considered to be worth £25 billion.

The reach and impact of the higher education sector is as much global as it is local.  The long-standing partnership between IDS and the University of Sussex, which has in recent years led to Sussex being ranked number one in the world for development studies, has over the last half century established a global network of students, research partners and alumni – with a number of foreign leaders having studied at our joint campus. This is a network through which global challenges such as poverty, inequality, climate change and pandemics are being addressed. The strong links with other countries and governments continue to help bring about change that benefits people in all parts of the world, including the UK.

The risks and opportunities that Brexit presents

To continue the success we have achieved, the next government will need to support research and teaching institutions like ours by creating a framework that encourages international collaboration and welcomes international students and researchers.

Brexit presents a considerable challenge to staff retention and recruitment, not just purely on a basis of immigration status for EU nationals currently working in our research institutions but on the wider repercussions for future international research partnerships and funding.

High quality, engaged research is critical to addressing pressing global challenges and requires the best researchers to be able to work together, irrespective of geographical location. The next government should work to negotiate an agreement with the EU27 that maintains the UK’s leading status as a centre for academic excellence and builds on, rather than diminishes, our international reputation.

A new UK government should take the opportunity to guarantee that researchers and teaching staff from the EU already working in the UK will see no change to their migrant status once the UK officially leaves the European Union. It also has the opportunity to reach out to international students in the EU and beyond, to let them know they are welcome to study in the UK and to make a practical move towards that by excluding international students from the Home Office immigration numbers and targets. Beyond any transitional period, freedom of movement for those involved in research should be maintained to encourage international collaboration and a continued contribution to the industrial strategy. Providing these opportunities will allow the post-Brexit economy to flourish.

The UK Trade Policy Observatory (UKTPO), based at the University of Sussex, is working with the government, opposition parties, industry and the public in offering independent advice to address the critical international trade challenges posed by Brexit.

UK research funding

We hope to see a new government continue to back innovative research funding through the UK Research Councils and government departments. The commitment made in 2016 by Chancellor Philip Hammond to guarantee the funding Universities receive from the EU should be extended until 2022.

New UK research funds, such as the Global Challenges Research Fund and the Ross Fund, offer exciting opportunities for research on international development. This is ODA funding, so research must be of benefit to low and middle income countries, bringing important opportunities to build partnerships and consortia with research institutions there whilst benefiting UK universities too. There is valuable scope not just for technological innovation, but for social innovation in how development is done. Research must therefore be prioritised and commissioned in ways that ensure it is interdisciplinary, maintaining a balance between natural science, medicine, environmental science, and also social sciences.

Maintaining and strengthening the UK’s soft power

While there are significant pressures on resources across Whitehall, the new government must not lose sight of the significance that higher education and international research plays in relationships and influence the UK has internationally. In times of heightened political tensions and rapidly changing political landscapes, the government should not underestimate the importance of the UK’s soft power and should seek to deepen rather than undermine it.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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