In the company of prominent lecturers, including Iain Lindsay, Great-Britain’s ambassador to Hungary, Éva G. Lukács, senior lecturer at the Faculty of Law of ELTE University, László Andor and Péter Balázs former EU commissionaires, Milestone Co-Founder and Academic Programme Director György Greskovits shared his thoughts on the possible effects on education by the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union at the ‘Social Europe Before and After Brexit’ conference organised by the Hungarian Economic Association.
György began his lecture by interpreting the message that the Brexit referendum carried to the key players within higher education. He highlighted that the decision of the UK to withdraw is the outcome of a democratic election and it created a paradoxical situation; questioning the result could mean discrediting democratic institutions or even democracy in general. However, British universities are in an awkward position in that they have to raise their voice and argue against the voters’ decision if they wish to keep in mind and want to act upon their own economically rational interests. He also emphasised that being international is in the universities’ best interests; they have to commit themselves to the idea and practice of the free movement of labour and talent, because they draw profit from that in attracting the most talented students and most qualified professionals.
Hence, in György’s opinion, it is no surprise that before the 2016 July referendum 103 British university leaders signed a joint letter in which they warned that leaving the European Union would mean ‘cutting ourselves off from unique support and established networks and would undermine the UK’s position as a global leader in science, arts and innovation’. He also reminded his audience of the words of Dame Julia Goodfellow, President of Universities UK and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Kent, who said that, ‘inside the EU, our outstanding British universities are even stronger. EU membership enhances university research and education which, in turn, benefits the British people’.
The Chief Executive of Universities UK gave a gloomy prognosis before the referendum, estimating that the number of EU applicants might decrease by 70-80% in the UK as the result of Brexit. Similarly, Michael Arthur, President of University College London (UCL), the British university with the most EU students, was not very optimistic about the future of British education claiming that universities would lose tens of millions of pounds if EU students were not able to finance their studies after Brexit due to the rise in tuition fees.
Citing the opinion of renowned British representatives of higher education, the co-founder of Milestone stated that currently there are more than 120.000 EU students in the UK and they represent 6% of the overall number of international students in the country. He also mentioned that research shows that international students generate £28.5 billion in gross output in the UK and support more than 200.000 jobs in Britain.
Furthermore, British institutes of higher education can apply to EU funds for research and innovation projects, thus it is reported that universities would lose approximately one billion pounds annually after Brexit. Before presenting in numbers how the result of the referendum affected university applications, György pointed out that, during the 25 years of the Erasmus programme, 200.000 British students were given the opportunity to study abroad. This is a significant number even if one bears in mind that the British are the least internationally-mobile students in the European Union with only 7% of them deciding to study abroad each year, in contrast with the Germans where this number is 25%.
György also referred to the recently published report of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), which revealed that if British universities charged international tuition fees to EU students there would be a reduction of over 31.000 new students coming from the EU-27 countries. This would represent a 57% decline in EU students and an annual loss of £1.5 billion for the British economy. It is also disquieting that the Tory government is planning to almost halve the numbers of international student visas, from 300.000 to 170.000. Yet another menacing sign is that, according to the University and College Union’s survey of 1.000 lecturers and professors, almost three quarter of EU academics in the UK are now considering leaving the country.
György talked about the Brexit negotiations as well, referring to some of the notable statements made by key British and EU participants in the process. He quoted from Theresa May’s 2017 January speech in which the British prime minister declared that the country was willing to find an agreement on continuing the collaboration with the European Union on scientific, research and innovation projects. Moreover, he quoted from Michel Barnier, the European Chief Negotiator for Brexit, who made a response to May’s statements which stated: ‘Our community of values and interests with the United Kingdom goes beyond trade. We are ambitious in our research and innovation networks, our laboratories and universities, even if the regulatory and financial framework of our current cooperation will obviously change in the future’.
Our Academic Programme Director also spoke briefly about the communiqué of the European University Network which was released on the day following the referendum which urged the maintenance of unity and cohesion amongst all European universities. Moreover, he mentioned an open letter, signed by 25 university leaders, in which, speaking on behalf of their universities, they committed themselves to work together in order to sustain the ‘research and exchange relationships between Europe’s universities, for the benefit of people across the continent’ regardless of the result of the referendum.
Towards the close of his conference speech, György introduced the most likely scenarios that could change the current state of affairs in British education after the UK leaving the EU. He emphasised that the future of education after Brexit depends on whether education will be a subject of the ongoing wheeling and dealing process between the EU and the UK or not. With this in mind, he put forward that there are more arguments for not changing the current status quo in the relationships between British universities and their EU counterparts. However, his view was that one cannot exclude the feeling that rationality may be overwritten by political irrationality.
‘If such a narrative becomes dominant which asserts that international students are the core of the problems in higher education, because they take away the places from the British, so if in the case of education, just like in the question of refugees and migration, populist voices grow stronger and turn into ruling principles, this would lead to rational arguments from universities becoming pointless and education may be sacrificed on the altar of populism’, claimed our Insitute’s co-founder, who argued that there are three possible scenarios with respect to how the status of EU students might change with regard to the outcome of the negotiations. First, their status remains the same. Secondly, they could acquire a unique EU status, or, thirdly, students could be placed in the same category as Chinese, Russian or American students, which means that they would have international status. In György’s view, in speculating about the future status of students and the evolution of tuition fees, it is worth keeping in mind that currently students coming from the European Economic Area enjoy the same benefits as the people of Great Britain. And, before Hungary became a member of the European Union, Hungarian students had the opportunity to apply for British university scholarships which were targeted at talented Eastern European students.
At the end of his lecture, György expressed his hope that British universities will do everything to continue to attract talent and keep their institutions’ international character. If they succeed it would mean a victory for professional reality and reasonable arguments over the irrationality of populism. On the other hand, it might happen that the role of education in social mobility will become limited due to political decisions. This would be to say that the situation of the already disadvantaged and vulnerable will become more difficult, while the super talented and the ultra rich will enjoy a competitive advantage in this changed situation.