I recently spoke on universities and Brexit at a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary University Group, and told the parliamentarians and vice-chancellors present about the press and media interviews I had given in Spain the week before.
I was particularly surprised and dismayed to be asked on national radio if Spanish students would still feel safe in Britain or if they would be discriminated against. I reassured the interviewer that although Britain had voted to leave the institutions of the EU, the people of Britain had not changed in June and I was sure that our proud tradition of reaching out to the world and welcoming people to our island would continue. That we now find ourselves needing to give such reassurances to our fellow Europeans must be a source of concern to us all.
When I was in Spain I met a number of students who were keen to come to the UK to study. Their reasons were clear. They like what they hear about the more personal and intensive approach to teaching, and the opportunity to study a wider range of more specialist degrees here. Above all they know that universities in the UK are world-class – not just a few of them, but the whole sector.
As to how British students see the future of their universities, I am acutely aware of Lord Ashcroft's referendum-day poll, which showed that 81% of voters in full-time education had voted remain. Of those specifically studying in universities, the figure from another poll is 87%. Universities are potentially more affected by Brexit than most sectors, yet 87% of university students do not support the current direction of travel. We can't forget that strength of opinion as we look to secure the best possible outcomes for universities in a future outside the EU. Indeed, it is part of our own mandate.
What should the sector be fighting for?
Our success as a sector has been built on our ability to attract the most talented students and academics from around Europe. The risk of losing our access to this talent pool is, I believe, the biggest threat that Brexit presents to our universities. We need to ensure that academics and their families can continue to come here to work – and that British academics continue to have access to and influence within European research networks and collaborations.
The Home Office is examining possible options for the immigration system and must protect the free movement of students within the EU – this means full degree students as well as those on the Erasmus exchange programme.
But we need to go further and remove unhelpful barriers to students coming to the UK from outside the EU too. These students enrich the learning experience of all students, and provide an influential network for British students when they graduate and seek to do business overseas. Higher education is now one of this country's most important exports, worth some £10.7 billion per year to the UK economy. And perhaps uniquely in terms of export earnings, that money is distributed to towns and cities in every corner of the country.
The recent opinion poll by ComRes for Universities UK showed that 75% of people would like to see the same number, or more, international students in the UK. And only 25% of Leave voters even think of students as immigrants. It is clear then that cutting their numbers will not address public concerns about immigration.
The single most useful thing we can do is to remove all overseas students from the net migration figures – as in America, Canada and Australia, where international students are classed as temporary visitors rather than immigrants, and where governments are doing all they can to attract more overseas students at a time when ours continues to send mixed messages.
Making the case locally
It was clear from the meeting that parliamentarians want to work with universities to ensure they can thrive and help to make post-Brexit Britain a success. I would encourage colleagues across the sector to engage with their local politicians and impress upon them both the dangers we are facing as a result of Brexit and the opportunities that must be seized.
As a country, we are about to embark on a major repositioning exercise in terms of our relationship with the international community and to do that successfully we will need to look to our strengths. And one thing we have that the world admires and wants to engage with is a world-class university system. We must make the most of it.
Professor Paul O'Prey is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Roehampton