Eduvation Blog

Brexit and Higher Ed

Good morning!

Today, with any luck, will see a peaceful transfer of power to the new administration in the US. (I summed up implications for higher ed yesterday, ICYMI.)

But that wasn’t the only geopolitical shift felt over the past month. The UK officially exited the European Union, with some significant implications and uncertainties for higher ed in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales.

Today, I’ll do my best to sum up what the barbarians have been doing in the land of my birth…




The British Exit from the EU

In a June 2016 referendum, 52% of voters in the UK opted to leave the European Union  after 47 years. The PM at the time, David Cameron, promptly resigned, and Brexit was delayed 3 times thanks to snafus in parliament, 2 elections, and protracted negotiations with the EU. Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, ultimately was defeated by Boris Johnson in the Jul 2019 election. Effective Jan 31 2020, a one-year “implementation period” began, and at the end of 2020 the UK ceased to participate in the European common market and customs union.


No More Freedom of Movement

Brexit will mean an end to freedom of movement between Britain and the EU. The millions of EU citizens currently living in the UK, and British citizens living in the UK, will retain many of their former rights – but Brits “will no longer have the automatic right to live and work in the EU, and vice-versa.” In many ways, this is what the Brexiteers wanted: to stop immigration, particularly from former communist nations in Eastern Europe. Visiting time for tourists will be limited to as little as 90 days, travel health insurance will be a new hassle, as will bringing along the family pet.  AP


Instant Economic Damage

Details of the new trade deal with the EU weren’t circulated until Dec 31 – “the day before the new rules took effect.” The impact on UK businesses was immediate. Customs issues held up freight shipments both in and out of the country, supply chains and foreign markets needed to be reconsidered, European stocks moved from the London exchange to Amsterdam or Paris. Tariffs on EU goods being reimported into the EU make it impossible to use UK distribution centres. Last year, Britain experienced “its deepest recession in more than 300 years,” and the Bank of England is warning that the Brexit deal will cost the UK a further 2% of GDP for years. Analysts are predicting a “double-dip recession.” But then, Brexit was always about sovereignty and national pride, economic realities be damned. Much of the real damage will only become clear once the pandemic has passed: England’s third national lockdown began Jan 5.  New York Times

“For many businesses, this is what Brexit has quickly become: a logistical, regulatory and administrative burden for which they were unprepared.”New York Times


Much like American “Trumpists,” the “Brexiteers” don’t seem too concerned about the manifold impacts of the decision on UK higher education…


Foreign Tuition

Even before COVID19, UK universities were concerned about the financial impact of reduced student mobility from the EU on their enrolments and tuition revenues…


$12B Revenue Anxiety

Throughout spring and summer 2020, British universities were panicking about the impact of reduced international student revenues. In April, Universities UK estimated a $12B annual loss of foreign student fees, and urged government to provide a “transformation fund” for partnerships and mergers. A London Economicsreport concluded that a 47% decline would cost 30,000 jobs in the sector. Scottish universities projected a $700M deficit, thanks to COVID19 and Brexit, and feared a government-led amalgamation could be in the works. Even the UK’s wealthiest university, Cambridge, was considering delayed sabbaticals, a voluntary part-time working scheme, and perhaps pay reductions or redundancies to address a revenue drop of hundreds of millions of pounds. Three-quarters of UK universities slipped in the QS World University Rankings for the 4th consecutive year (ever since the Brexit vote), and 13 universities could face insolvency, based on one analysis. Mid-ranked institutions without substantial financial reserves, but with high exposure to international enrolment, faced the greatest risk.


Bullet Dodged?

And yet, by September 2020 it seemed clear that UK universities had hit a record 44,300 undergrads enrolled from outside the UK and EU – a 9% increase over the previous year – according to the UCAS application service. (And UCAS stats usually account for less than half of international enrolments.) Only acceptances from students in the EU were down, about 2%, because of Brexit. (Then again, the actual impact on Erasmus+ grants won’t be felt until 2022.) Just a few months earlier, vice-chancellors warned that a “sector-wide financial crisis” was coming, but enrolments may have been helped by “negative sentiment towards the US,” and the fact that Australia and New Zealand’s borders remained closed. Domestic enrolments also surged, thanks to the A-levels being waived: 36% of UK 18-year-olds enrolled, also setting a new record. Deferrals rose only slightly, from 5.4% to 5.7%.  The Guardian


Erasmus Lost

Massive Student Mobility

The EU founded the Erasmus program in 1987, to provide PSE students across member states opportunities for study abroad, work abroad, and apprenticeships across Europe. Each year it supports about 200,000 exchange students. Countries pay into the scheme based on their overall GDP. The Guardian

In 2017, ~16,500 UK students went abroad under the program, while ~32,000 EU nationals came to UK institutions. That trade inbalance meant that the British government was hosting twice as many students as EU partners received from Britain, because of the longstanding appeal of British education. The $40B Erasmus+ program is expected to send 10M people abroad from 2021-27.

“Erasmus also seems to help strengthen a European identity among participants. As this, sadly, is not aligned with the spirit of Brexit, one can only wonder whether it contributed to the decision of the UK to terminate its participation.”Barbara Lorber, Erasmus alum


Replacing Erasmus with Turing

In December, Boris Johnson announced that the UK was pulling out of the “extremely expensive” Erasmus scheme, but that British students will still have access to a new domestic program to be called the Turing scheme, after mathematician and codebreaker Alan Turing. (The decision does not take place immediately; the UK participates in Erasmus+ until the current program ends in 2022.) The Turing scheme appears to be a one-way outbound exchange program, to send UK students to top-tier universities around the world.  Politico


Turing Shortcomings

PIE News reports that the UK plans to commit Ł100M ($174M Cdn) to Turing, to fund 35,000 UK students heading abroad. They note that it may apply to students in schools, as well as PSE, but that individual institutions will need to negotiate mobility deals with each foreign partner institution.

The Higher Ed Policy Institute observes that the commitment to Turing appears to be about half the UK’s share in Erasmus, and that it will target “students from disadvantaged backgrounds.” But typical Erasmus grants were only about $6,000 Cdn – hardly enough to cover all the expenses of study abroad. (Hence critics complain it is a middle-class perk. A 2010 study found that UK participants were white, middle-class, academic high achievers.) Furthermore, replacing bilateral mobility agreements with unilateral ones will be a big challenge.

Times Higher Ed adds that the Turing scheme does not replace Erasmus+ funding for staff exchanges for teaching and training purposes.

Of the 167,000 UK participants in Erasmus+ from 2014-18, 7,081 were in Wales and 13,957 in Scotland. Both governments have emphasized the importance of the program, but feel their concerns have been ignored by London. Northern Ireland, which is staying (partially) in the EU, has agreed to fund about 7,000 Erasmus+ students.  PIE News


Unequal Impacts

Julia Pieza writes that declining EU enrolments (potentially half of all EU students coming to the UK) will hit institutions quite unequally. As it stands, London and Southeast England benefit most from inbound international students, but a disproportionate number choose to study in less expensive regions like Sheffield Central and Newcastle upon Tyne East. Russell Group universities like Oxford and Cambridge will likely continue to enroll EU students, but they will be paying higher tuitions – perhaps Ł100M more each per year. These same powerhouse brands are already negotiating “Brexit-blind” partnerships with EU institutions. Less prestigious UK universities, on the other hand, could lose Ł100,000 a year. Higher tuition fees will also reduce social diversity and equity, attracting more students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds in wealthier nations.  Higher Education Policy Institute

“Ending UK participation in Erasmus  – an initiative that has expanded opportunities and horizons for so many young people – is cultural vandalism by the UK government.” –  Nicola Sturgeon, Scottish First Minister


“Mobility is by nature reciprocal. UK universities will lose culturally and intellectually by not having short term international students in their universities.”Kostis Giannidis, President, Erasmus Student Network


Declining Prestige

University reputation surveys are of course sensitive to geopolitics and perception, so Brexit began impacting the world ranking of UK institutions in 2019…


UK Universities Losing Prestige

Thanks to Brexit and budget cuts, declining research impact and student:faculty ratios, and declining international student numbers, three-quarters of UK universities slipped in the QS World University Rankings for the fourth year running (since the Brexit vote). MIT, Stanford, and Harvard held on to the top 3 spots, but other US institutions lost ground. 26 Asian universities (in China, South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan) rose into the top 100, contributing to the dislocation of others. Guardian


United Kingdom No More?

Rather like the MAGA insurrection movement in the US, the populist Brexit decision has polarized the nation – but also the parliaments of its constituent countries…


PSE Shake-up in Scotland

In August 2020, the Scottish Funding Council launched a consultation to cope with a projected $700M deficit facing its universities in the wake of COVID19 and Brexit. “We will be considering the overarching framework that can further develop a connected, collaborative ecosystem for learning and teaching and research; reflects government and tertiary education objectives; and secures accountability for public funding.” Academics feared that their institutions might lose autonomy on fundamentals like program offerings, or might even face involuntary mergers. The Scottish government made it clear that it would be opting out of the UK’s “restructuring regime.” Glasgow Times


Separatist Scots?

After 313 years in the United Kingdom, anti-British sentiment is on the rise in Scotland again. In the 2014 referendum, 55% of Scots voted against independence – a fairly thin margin. The Scottish legislature has managed to insulate Scotland from many policies out of London, including retaining free university and some pharmaceuticals. But now, with widespread Scottish distaste for Brexit, Boris Johnson, and his mishandling of the pandemic, support for the Scottish Nationalist Party is growing. In next May’s election, the semi-autonomous legislature in Edinburgh might have a strong separatist mandate.  Washington Post

“Assuming Scottish public opinion continues on its current trajectory, 2021 is going to be a crunch point for the U.K.’s constitutional survival.”Jamie Maxwell, Glasgow journalist


Quebec as a Model

McMaster political science prof Catherine Frost observes that Scotland is using a 1998 Canadian ruling on Quebec secession as a model for a legal path to independence. Canada’s Supreme Court acknowledged the province’s right to secede, and established a “clear majority on a clear question” in a referendum as a lawful means to do so. The 55% who voted to stay in 2014 did so knowing that “EU membership was still a perk of union. Now, independence offers the best chance for Scotland to rejoin the EU.”  McMaster


Cases on Campus

Since yesterday, CdnPSE has reported 16 more cases of COVID19. (Many of course go unreported. My running tally is 1,190 since Sept, in my master spreadsheet.)

uAlberta reported 8 new cases of COVID19 since Jan 3. (Total 170 since Mar 1 2020. I tracked 14 since Sept)  UA

Brock U reported another positive case yesterday, of an individual who had been on campus 5 days prior. (7 since Sept)  Brock

McMaster U reported another student case yesterday, who had been in the Health Sciences Centre 4 days before testing positive. (Total 26 since Sept)  McMaster

Nova Scotia reported an off-campus student “in the Central zone” who “virtually attends two Nova Scotia universities” tested positive yesterday. (The zone includes Dalhousie, MSVU, SMU, UKC, NSCAD and AST.)  CBC

Ryerson U has not published case counts, but the faculty association reports 17 cases to date, including one person who tested positive Jan 6. Ryerson’s labour unions have been urging more transparent reporting of cases and specific locations affected. (This adds 4 to my previous count.)  Ryersonian

uWaterloo reported an individual who had visited campus tested positive yesterday. (23 since Sept)  UW



Your Future Says Thanks!

Bow Valley College (Calgary) launched a revitalized brand yesterday, including a new shield logo incorporating 5 icons representing 5 values (respect, creativity, inclusion, resilience, and teamwork) and forming “an abstract landscape.” The launch was accompanied by a slick, humorous 30-sec spot in which a BVC student is visited by his future self, who wanted to say thank you. “Bow Valley College was a real turning point for us.” (I’ve seen that concept in the US and UK, but not lately in CdnPSE.)   BVC  |  YouTube



Thanks for reading! If you missed my in-depth coverage of the past month of developments in the pandemic, I’ve assembled the 5 issues of this newsletter into one big blog entry summing up the State of the Pandemic as of mid-January. (If the course of COVID19 continues on its predictable path, I may be able to wait another month before I spend that much time on it again… Wish me luck!)

Stay safe and be well,



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