UK Universities Consider EU Campuses Ahead of Brexit

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By Naina Bhardwaj, News Editor

British universities are considering plans to open branches inside the European Union a bid to stay connected to Europe after Brexit which the higher education sector was largely against and since the vote, has voiced concerns about the financial implications of leaving.

For British universities the attractions of an EU outpost are several: it would allow them to keep a foot in the door in maintaining partnerships with other EU universities, it would spread their risk in the event of a dramatic “hard Brexit”, and it might offer a way of retaining and attracting staff who are needed to work within the EU as well as retaining access to EU research funds.

The referendum has been constricting the flow of EU students, who have been the fastest growing proportion of young undergraduates. EU students accounted for more than 5% of undergraduates studying in the UK in each of the past five years, figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) show.

British universities, in collaboration with small businesses, receive £850m in research grants each year from the European Union and there is evidence that UK universities are already losing out on research collaboration with European partners.

The steady increase in the number of people attending university has come in spite of mounting debts among students. Graduates now leave higher education with an average debt of £44,000, compared with £16,000 for those who graduated five years ago.

Responding to the referendum result, educators have made repeated calls for the government to provide reassurance over university funding, and confirm how students coming to the UK to study may be affected. In reaction to this, Universities Minister Jo Johnson has said funding schemes would be honoured.

Chris Husbands, vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, said:

“You can imagine a situation post-Brexit where UK universities are operating as aggressively in Europe as they are in China and India and elsewhere.”

“There’s an open question whether this would genuinely secure access to grants,” said Husbands. “If you are going to do that – let’s say you are operating in Belgium – you are going to be operating in the regulatory regime for higher education for Belgium as well as the regulatory regime in the UK.

“I know people are looking at it as a possible route. If you are a research-intensive university, like the University of Cambridge, you’ve got very serious amounts of money tied up in this,” he added.

University leaders are currently ‘window shopping’ around sites across the European Union to find which country would be the most cooperative for British university campuses. The Republic of Ireland, Finland and the Baltic states have emerged as preferred options for some, while others have looked to countries where their university has existing ties, such as Germany.

The combination of problems for rectors and vice-chancellors comes after a period of relative stability since the imposition of the £9,000 tuition fee for undergraduates in 2012, with easier access to finance and the end of government-imposed caps on undergraduate numbers. British universities have enjoyed a bonanza of expansion and construction.

However for many universities, any plans for expansion could also be constrained by the government’s initial teaching excellence framework Tef, which seeks to rate every university on a combination of metrics from student satisfaction surveys, employment destination and degree completion data and will be linked to universities’ ability to raise future tuition fees. While universities have had decades of experience in having their research output evaluated, the Tef is the first systemic effort to gauge teaching outcomes.

Several universities are said to be unhappy enough that they are considering opting out of the Tef second stage, a move that would see their fees revert back to £9,000 rather than rise with inflation. However others have gone ahead and announced higher fees, despite the uncertainty.

Alistair Jarvis, deputy chief executive of Universities UK, said British universities faced “significant challenges”.

“British universities can thrive post-exit with the right support from government,” said Jarvis.

“To thrive post-exit, we need government to take action to make the UK an even more attractive destination for talented university staff and students from around the world and develop new policies and funding to enhance international research collaboration.”

The University of Kent has had a centre in Brussels for almost 20 years, for more than 200 postgraduate students from 60 countries, and also runs branches in Paris, Athens and Rome.

The universities considering EU branches do not want to reveal their plans in progress, and some others remain unsure. Last week it was reported that the University of Cardiff was in serious discussions about opening a new EU campus in response to the Brexit vote. Other universities could follow suit as Brexit negotiations gather pace.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has told the BBC that formal negotiations to leave the EU will probably begin early in 2017.} else {