UK universities are rumoured to be considering the possibility of opening campuses within the European Union in an attempt to mitigate the effects of ‘Brexit’.
University leaders have expressed growing concern over the potential impact that Britain’s exit from the EU could have on student recruitment and research funding after a period of relative stability and expansion following the introduction of £9,000 tuition fees in 2012.
As reported by the Guardian, many UK universities are now said to exploring the possibility of opening research institutes or satellite campuses in EU countries to try and retain both EU funding and staff who need to be within the EU to work.
One vice chancellor said that ‘Brexit cuts off our head and the HE [higher education and research]bill cuts off our legs‘. He added that many universities were currently in the process of ‘window shopping’ to see which EU governments would be the most co-operative in terms of regulations.
Finland, the Republic of Ireland and the Baltic states are thought to be among the locations favoured by UK institutions for the construction of new campuses, while some universities have been reportedly looking to strengthen their existing ties with other countries such as Germany.
Some universities are said to remain in doubt over whether to expand their EU operations. Questions have also been raised over whether such a move would guarantee access to EU funding, as UK institutions would have to operate under the regulations of both Britain and the EU country where they were based.
According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, 14% of total higher level research grants and contracts received by UK institutions in 2014/15 came from EU sources – a significant percentage of revenue for research driven universities such as members of the Russell Group.
It is unlikely that Brexit will affect the number of full time students enrolling, which has continued to rise following the elimination of restrictions in the number of students that universities can recruit.
Chris Husbands, vice-chancellor at Sheffield Hallam University, commented that the UK leaving the EU would not necessarily reduce the numbers of students coming from member states – many of whom already take on loans to cover £9,000 a year tuition fees instead of free tuition in their own countries.
The forthcoming implementation of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) could restrict any future plans for expansion, however.
The TEF marks the first metric evaluation of teaching quality and practice between UK universities and will allow institutions demonstrating good quality to raise tuition fees above the current £9,000 a year threshold.
A number of institutions have expressed concerns about whether the data being used is the correct way to measure standards, leading to reports that some universities are now considering whether to opt out of the second phase (which will allow tuition fees to increase to £9,250).
In spite of the uncertainty, some experts remain positive about the future outlook for higher education. Nick Hillman, former government adviser and head of the Higher Education Policy institute thinktank, warned that the difficulties were ‘not insurmountable’ and that universities needed to be careful about ‘crying wolf’.