Higher Education and Brexit: It is not just about the money

By Dr Fabio Aricò

The media and the press have bashed us with endless sequences of statistics and figures about the loss of fee revenues and research funding universities would incur as the result of a Brexit. There is no doubt that this is a real threat for the health of the British Higher Education system, but when thinking education we should not focus exclusively on money matters: quality is the real concern. I am an immigrant academic, who had to compete to secure an academic job in the UK. More than that, I am the teacher of a large and internationally diverse group of students, and I can appreciate the benefits of working in an internationalised campus environment. In this post I will argue that competition among academics, and diversity within the student population, are the key determinants of quality and excellence of the British Higher Education system. Brexit is a threat to such excellence, and here are the reasons why.


Immigrant and Native Academics in the UK: competition and academic quality

A recent article on the Mail Online, claims that nearly half of university jobs have gone to Europeans in recent times, with a larger proportion coming from countries hit by the crisis of the Eurozone. At the same time, the percentage of academic positions awarded to Britons has fallen by ten per cent. To begin with, it is interesting to read that Britons are already labelled as no longer ‘Europeans’ according to the Mail. But the real flaw of the article is the hidden claim that competition from immigrant academics harms British natives, and prevents them from becoming academics themselves.

Every economist knows that, whichever the good of service traded, more competition in the market fosters better quality. The same principle applies to the market for academics. Preventing academic immigrants from accessing British universities would have the immediate effect of: (i) precluding universities from selecting the best candidates for their vacancies, and (ii) reducing the competition for excellence for those already employed. Surely, more British citizens would be able to access academic jobs, but the quality of their research and their teaching skills would not compare with those of other academics left outside the borders. This would lead to a steady decline of teaching and research quality in British universities, which is evidently undesirable for a country that is internationally recognised as leader in the Higher Education sector.

While immigrant academics do not represent a real threat, we still face the issue that the number of native academics is decreasing. However, the causes and the solutions to this problem do not even remotely relate to Britain’s immigration policy, or Europe, or the Eurozone: the reform of the Higher Education system is the culprit. Starting from the early 1990s, and well before the Eurozone was even born, the British Government has pushed more and more students into universities. This process was made possible by an increase in university fees (with an increased debt on students’ shoulders). Since more students access Higher Education, the overall average quality of graduate students has inevitably fallen lower and lower. This fact alone can explain that fewer and fewer British graduates would be academically prepared or inclined to engage in postgraduate training, irrespective of the degree of competition in the market for academic jobs. At the same time: (i) a university degree still offers a high wage-premium, while (ii) higher student debt incentivises graduates to find a remunerative job to support their debt repayments. Evidently, both these factors discourage British students from pursuing an academic career: largely under-paid compared to employment in the private sector, and no longer as secure in terms of job-protection. If we want to increase the proportion of Britons gaining academic positions, the solution has to be found re-thinking Higher Education policy, rather than preventing high-skilled immigrants from accessing the British academic job-market.

Immigrant and Native Students in the UK: the benefits of diversity and internationalisation

Another argument explored within the Brexit debate relates to the costs and the benefits of admitting immigrant students to the British academic system. On one side there is the prospect of huge losses caused by restricted access to British universities for international students. On the other side, European students get the hard stick, as recent figures reveal that a number of them flee from Britain at the end of their degree failing to re-pay their student loans. However, it is hard to justify why student immigration should be held responsible for a poorly designed student loan system, especially in the light of the fact that the very same system is also pushing an increasing number of British teenagers to leave the UK to study for their degrees in other European countries.

As I suggested, we should not just focus on money matters. British universities have worked hard to develop their ‘internationalisation’ strategy, knowing well that a diverse student population generates huge benefits in terms of learning and teaching for all. While the most innovative and successful teaching practices are based on encouraging students to exchange information, and teach to each other, best results can be achieved within a diverse student population. Teaching a widely internationalised cohort of students here at the School of Economics, I can see this on a daily basis.  In my classroom the most effective exchange of knowledge takes place when students come from different backgrounds, and when different experiences can be shared for the benefit of all.

The challenge of teaching in a diverse student population also pushes me to devise new methods to teach to both national and immigrant students, explaining concepts in different ways to meet different learning needs. Thus, student diversity fosters better learning, as well as better teaching effectiveness. Even outside the classroom, our internationalised campus teaches students about diversity in a positive and constructive way, it facilitates cultural exchange, and it forms individuals beyond their course curriculum. Limiting this phenomenon would challenge one of the fundamental strengths of a British society which has been striving to promote integration in the past, and which was always able to embrace and put the different talents of its members to good use.

To sum up, Brexit poses a threat to the excellence of the British Higher Education system. The long-term risks are: (i) reduced competition in the market academics, with negative effects on research and teaching quality, and (ii) reduced diversity in student population, with a negative effects on knowledge exchange, as well as learning and teaching effectiveness. Revenue and funding losses are just the tip of the iceberg: the strongest threat is to academic quality.


10 thoughts on “Higher Education and Brexit: It is not just about the money

  1. I do so agree with the sentiments expressed here. In US, at my home institution (Florida State University) reductions in public support for higher education led administrators to impose large monetary penalties on departments who bring in international graduate students without outside support. Predictably, we enroll far fewer international students from abroad than before this policy, to the detriment of all.


    • Interesting. In the UK some institutions are accused to be far too greedy in attracting students just for the sake of income revenue. Ethical issues are always present when education is involved. However, as I argue in my post, it is not just about the money, it is about the cultural capital that overseas students bring to us. My English was poorer when I moved to the UK, but my knowledge was sound. My Italian undergraduate training was excellent; shame I was not given the opportunity to develop it in my own country. When I moved to the UK I was offered opportunities, but I firmly believe that I gave (and I am still giving) something in exchange.


  2. I find the “reduced competition in the market academics” argument redundant. Does the US have to be part of an artificial political integration to attract academics? Of course not. It has a hyper competitive academic market because it has so many top quality universities. Britain falls in the same position. It will continue to welcome top quality overseas academics no matter what.

    I also cannot agree with the premise that the increase in graduates is necessarily linked to reduced quality of graduate students. Standards have been maintained. Arguably a bigger problem are structural defects in the UK economy. Demand for skilled labour lags and ‘some’ graduates have been forced into jobs which do not exploit their abilities. And aren’t these structural issues a problem throughout? Take nurses. Are we investing enough in nursing training or has it become just too easy to import nurses from abroad (possibly to the detriment of both our youth and the ‘brain drained’ countries involved)?


    • I respect your beliefs, but market competition is never a redundant argument. Competition (or lack thereof) is at the core of any economic theory, and it plays a fundamental role in psychological theories as well. Competition is what leads agents to be productive and innovate, and the market for academics works precisely like any other market. Whichever measure restricts competition does bias the process of selection for the best candidate to a task. Complacency about the current excellence of the British system will not help at all. I could tell you some horror stories about overseas academics struggling to face high visa fees that their institutions are not willing to cover any longer. Now, picture a (not that unlikely) scenario where a Brexit further increases the cost to immigrate and live in the UK for academics. It would be evident that less academics would want to live and work in the UK, which much detriment to the excellence of the British HE system.

      In terms of graduates, I would be keen to know which evidence backs your statement that the quality of our graduates has not fallen. Employers complain about the lack of professionalism and skills of our graduates. It is not about demand, it is about lack of preparation and sense of entitlement. See this report as one of the many examples: the media have been covering this for ages. The big mistake was investing everything in Higher Education without paying much attention to Vocational Training, something we could learn from Germany instead. I feel uncomfortable with the idea that demand for graduates should pick up. Demand for labour will be set from our production mix after all, it cannot be blamed on the employers themselves.

      Nurses…I am not sure this is a good example to consider. The NHS is falling apart: a strong signal that investing in medical sciences as an education path might not pay off in the future. We might decide to invest as much as we want in nursing training, but if the main employer for nurses is restricting opportunities, the result will be that fewer nurses will be willing to get trained. Do not forget that the NHS will no longer pay for the training of medical practitioners in the future. We should be thankful that immigrant health practitioners are coming and doing the job.


      • I didn’t say market competition is a redundant argument. I did say that you were applying market competition inappropriately. Britain, in terms of higher education, is closer to the US than continental Europe. It will always have a large % of overseas academics, given overseas academics will want to be part of some of the best universities in the world and those universities will want to maintain their position. In summary, linking quality and Brexit lacked credible argument as British universities are- and would continue to be- highly successful.

        I would be more interested in why you think British students are of less quality and presenting evidence in support. It was your argument after all. It’s mere opinion perhaps, but my experience of British graduates continues to be highly positive. Widening participation has not been destructive. If anything, it hasn’t gone far enough (as shown by the continued skewed outcome away from the working class). Moreover, it cannot be used to justify your original comment. Even if standards had fallen, the number of potential academics would not also fall. The reason for any reduction in native born ‘doctors’ is obvious: insufficient funding.

        I can’t agree with your ‘demand for labour’ comments. The UK apparently suffers from skills shortage problems. There is no notion of ‘too many graduates’. Instead, the problem is focused on ‘too much profit from low skilled labour’. This doesn’t mean we necessarily need more vocational training. It does mean that labour economists need to spend more time appreciating the deficiencies in the labour market and how we have not recovered from Thatcherism (and Thatcher would probably be pro-EU now, given its rather “market comfort” nature).

        The NHS is not falling apart; recently benefited from them after all. We do see, however, inappropriate investments as austerity snogs poor investments. Do I thank immigrant health practitioners? Of course. However, I certainly find it poor form that more domestic training isn’t occurring. I also certainly find it poor form that other countries have to suffer from brain drain consequences. There is a belief that Brexit is about the likes of UKIP. It isn’t. It’s a reaction to political policies which lack economic sense.


  3. Pingback: What is the future of British Academia post-Brexit? | rachael gillibrand

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