As Brexit begins to impact one of the UK’s most internationally-connected sectors, Alex Acland and Elizabeth James, Heads of the Education Practices at Odgers Berndtson and Berwick Partners respectively, ask just what the future holds for UK universities and the £95 billion in gross output they generate for the economy.

In higher education, the impact of Brexit is being felt in the recruitment of research academics and EU research collaborations. The international recruitment market for Vice-Chancellors remains resilient, but the main consideration is whether the UK remains an attractive place to relocate to.

"Are we a friendly place that welcomes the most talented from around the world? The jury’s somewhat out, but it’s an interesting question."

The University of Cambridge recently recruited its Vice-Chancellor from Canada and Edinburgh University from Hong Kong. We haven’t had a tradition of recruiting VCs from Europe to lead UK universities. They are more likely to have been Australian, Canadian, and some from the USA, because continental higher education has not undergone the same level of market reform.

Braced for a plunge in EU student applications

A greater area of concern is student recruitment. Post-Brexit, EU designated students will be re-classified as international students and will pay fees at the same level as other nationalities. The affordability and attractiveness of our universities to EU students will become a very different question. All universities are already dealing with a reduction in EU applications and student numbers and preparing for a further significant loss of income.

When it comes to research collaborations, the UK will lose its direct access to EU research funding and although the UK government could replace this funding pot, the other half of the story is our ability to join EU research bids and collaborative programmes.

"Brexit will make it harder, but not impossible, for UK academics to collaborate with EU colleagues, and we are already seeing signs of UK teams being frozen out of new bids"

Research is a collaborative exercise, no-one does research by themselves and the most interesting advances happen through collaboration. European academics are saying “sorry I don’t really want you on the bid team if you’re not going to be around in a year’s time”.

Fewer partners

Universities we speak to say they’re being chosen less and less as partners for international collaboration on research. This isn’t just within Europe, but internationally, because US and Asian universities are looking for partners in Europe with access to funding. They’re also shunning universities based here because the UK no longer has potential as a European research partner.

When the reality bites of not being able to bid for European research programmes, or win funding, I think there will be a clear drop-off in the UK’s attractiveness as a destination for cutting-edge research. I just don’t think this country has yet grasped the impact of Brexit on the international research community. The Chinese, for example, are aghast we could walk away from our current pole position on projects. We’re currently talking to institutions in Dubai and they, too, see Brexit as total madness.

These Brexit insights by Alex Acland and Elizabeth James, Heads of the Education Practices at Odgers Berndtson and Berwick Partners respectively, are part of ‘Brexit, Business Leaders and Investment’, a major report from Odgers Berndtson. As leaders in global executive search, across multiple functions and sectors, we have a unique perspective that comes from being close to top executives in almost 30 countries.

Download the full report

To explore more of our perspectives on Brexit, click below:

Alex Acland

Alex Acland is a Principal in the Education practice of the London office of Odgers Berndtson. He predominantly focuses on recruiting leaders of schools, business schools and universities and has b...



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