Quite reasonably, universities may not be front of mind for most people when they consider the aftermath of the referendum, yet they have key roles to play in supporting productivity as the UK moves forward and in helping heal divides that have occurred nationally and regionally through the referendum debate.
Currently though, universities are being buffeted by an increasing number of significant policy changes and a new Higher Education and Research Bill is awaiting its Second Reading. In light of the Brexit vote I have made clear my view that we should slow the pace of change and possibly delay the passage of the Bill. My reasoning is as follows.
BIS has already faced significant cuts, yet it will now be managing the new Bill and will have a key role within the all-consuming EU re-negotiation. The demands of increased activity, exacerbated by the demands of cost containment, can only impact negatively on the chance of a high quality HE Bill.
Proceeding at pace will also be asking a lot of the HE sector which, along with the rest of the UK, is destabilised by the referendum result. Alongside 'Brexit' the sector faces changes to funding for nurses and other health and social care students as well as changes to teacher training. Most of this is also be managed by BIS which, for good measure, is still wrestling with another government flagship policy in the form of Apprenticeships and the Apprenticeship Levy. In the current environment, deferring the Second Reading of the Bill in favour of a period of stability and a little more time can only help to ensure that we all get what we need - a well-considered, well-prepared and well-implemented HE Bill.
Finally, according to the current timetable the Bill would remove the Higher Education Funding Council for England and replace it with a pro-market regulator, the Office for Students in 2018. This is a significant shift from an arms-length body which seeks to manage the sector to one which is pro customer and has as part of its brief the need to manage market failure. If this change to a regulator occurs in 2018 it will be just as the UK is proposed to leave the EU with potentially significant shifts to university international collaborations. Surely creation of a new market driven regulatory environment is best undertaken when the system is stable enough to allow a market to grow from a firm foundation?
If the Government does have time to address matters related to universities I believe that there are two pressing issues that could help smooth the impact of the referendum.
First government should change its approach to international student numbers by taking those students out of net migration targets. If we are to exercise more control and choice over immigration, surely international university students and the financial and intellectual resources they bring to the UK should be highest on the list.
It is good to hear government providing some reassurance (via the Student Loans Company) to our EU students (and staff) on the short term security of their immigration and financial status. But Higher Education is a long term decision and a commitment to those EU residents still considering UK higher education that we remain truly open for business would help provide reassurance to them and the HE sector. Staff and student exchange is core to universities and government support for this activity will be important in future years.