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.