20/02/2017 07:08 GMT | Updated 21/02/2018 05:12 GMT

The Big Conversation: Brexit And HE

Association of University Directors of Estates' (AUDE) chair and director of estates and facilities at the University of Surrey Trevor Humphreys, discusses the effect of recent political events on the HE sector.

Just over a month into 2017 and already we've seen significant change and political turmoil.

Recent headlines have been dominated by the ambiguity of Theresa May's 'hard' Brexit and the inauguration of Trump. But what does this mean for the higher education sector?

The Brexit effect

Brexit will have a tremendous impact not only in the UK, but internationally. Undoubtedly the sector will be affected in many ways including our student demographic, our workforce, our costs, as well as international research funding. Historically, the UK has been the biggest destination for European students heading to study abroad. Changing attitudes towards immigration and restrictions on border control may have a substantial effect on our ability to entice to the UK global talent. Recent UCAS figures indicated that the number of EU students applying to UK universities has already fallen by seven per cent since Brexit.

International students bring significant economic, social and cultural benefits to the UK, however at this time of uncertainty our continuing ability to attract students and staff from the EU and abroad is a real concern. From 2011-2012 international revenues amounted to nearly £5.7 billion from student fees, representing over 20% of all university income. The impact of any change to such a significant income stream is clear - but until we have clarification over whether the student numbers will be included within the Government's new immigration targets and how international students might feel about applying to study in the UK post Brexit, we can't be sure of how big an impact this will have.

Despite these areas of concern, change brings new opportunities. The UK is world-leading in attracting overseas students and we remain a very attractive proposition as compared to other countries aiming to attract international students. According to a recent Times Higher Education report, five UK institutions were named among the top 10 "most international". Many of our higher education institutions are global research powerhouses; it would be prudent for other universities to focus on strategies to develop or maintain their credentials as international universities so to exploit new markets in the lead up to Brexit. It follows that it is crucial to ensure the learning and teaching environments are fit for purpose, that staff are flexible and have strong values, that courses focus on co-curricular, employability and industry partnering, that students are given choice, that research is impactful and that universities develop and maintain strong relationships with their communities.

The Trump card

We know that higher education has become a globalised sector, with growing numbers of students seeking to study a degree outside of their home country. According to a recent report by University UK in 2011-12 the UK has 435,235 overseas students, and 70% were from outside the EU. The UK is currently the second most popular destination for international students after the United States and in the wake of Trump's immigration rhetoric, the US' appeal to overseas students may weaken.

Brexit may mean Brexit, but in comparison to concerns around studying in the US, it may be possible Britain and other English speaking countries such as New Zealand and Canada, will benefit as an attractive location for non-EU students who would have looked to America last year. Net immigration targets are a constant source of worry to the higher education sector and if the government refuses to exclude overseas students from these targets, it may result in universities seeing further reduction in applications from overseas students. It is more important than ever that we create an enticing environment for non-EU students. This means strengthening our attraction to compete effectively against wider international universities in countries such as New Zealand and Canada.

From an estate and facilities perspective there will be a need to ensure a strong focus on quality and efficiency to showcase value for money. We need to continue to create environments in which students learn, study, live and where staff work, that we can be suitably proud of. A campus should create a strong sense of place where international students can feel part of a wider and inclusive community. There is a clear link between a student's choice of institution and the quality of the estate, so facilities must be world class to compete with global institutions.

The future remains uncertain and the higher education sector has many challenges to face in 2017and beyond. There may be some consequential market adjustment that would have regional impact both economically and politically. However, universities will continue to tackle these head on and no doubt discover new opportunities.