Among the many details of the FTA between the EU and the UK that was supposed to smooth the exit of the UK from Single Market and Customs Union was that the UK declined to continue participating in the student exchange programme Erasmus (there are other components to Erasmus that I will not focus on). Rather, in the spirit of sovereignty and independence, the UK will set up its own programme that will support UK students who want to study abroad for a term or two, though with very limited resources per student. While this might save indeed money (especially, as the UK is more attractive as destination than as sending country of students), there are clear negative repercussions for Higher Education in the UK. Exchange students who spend part of their undergraduate students in the UK might return as post-graduate (highly paying) students; while I did not participate myself in the Erasmus programme, I spent a seminar in the US during my undergraduate studies, which ultimately informed my decision to apply for PhD programmes in the US. Penny-wise, but pound-fool! Of course, there are other, non-monetary benefits – a more international student body makes UK universities more attractive for domestic students and for international academics; it fuels the intellectual environment and debate etc., as eloquently discussed in this article.
The replacement scheme (Turing) has little to speak for it – it is one-sided, i.e., focused on outbound UK students only rather than on two-way partnerships with non-UK universities; even so, building up new partnership is costly and takes time (as mentioned in the above article, but also squaring with my own experience of three years working in the international study office in Tübingen). And with cooperation shifting from department/school to university level, there will be less ownership in UK universities for such a scheme.
All in all, I see this decision as another negative shock for the UK Higher Education sector, which has been under pressure in recent years and even more so during the COVID-19 crisis, as it depends to a large extent on (international and post-graduate) student fees. Brexit has made UK universities less attractive for both European students who have to pay more and non-European students who might see fewer job perspectives in the UK after their study. Brexit makes UK universities less attractive for academics who face more red tape than before (if they come from the EU), a less international student body, and cost pressures due to COVID-19 (and lower student fee revenues). While I have no doubt that the UK university sector will recover in the long-run (let’s say 20 to 30 years), the short- to medium-term perspectives are not positive. One important challenge will be the funding model with its extensive reliance on student fees, even though I do not see any political appetite to address this, given other more urgent political priorities. But I would expect more turmoil and decline before things will turn eventually to the better.
10. Jan, 2021