Excellence without border
In their mission to create and share knowledge (See Chart 1 for the example of Oxford1,2), universities have long relied on international cooperation and funding. UK universities receive £1.2 billion a year from the European Union (EU)3, but also welcome 127,000 EU students4 and maintain a close partnership with the European research community3. Following the Brexit vote, applications from EU students have already dropped by 7%5 in the UK and researchers are being concerned about cross-border collaboration. Oxford, the oldest university of the English-speaking world is also receiving negative signals with researchers being rejected from EU projects due to Brexit-related funding fears6 and student applications droppings7.
The university has, over time, established a strong leadership in both research and academics. It has created value by fostering intellectual excellence and by drawing from global talents. An increasing distance to the EU could mean three things to the university’s value chain. First, the £66 million of European research funding it receives every year8 could be in jeopardy. Second, EU researchers and faculty, who currently make up 17% of its staff9, could be tempted to leave due to unfavorable prospects. Third, European students may not favor UK universities due to visa and employment concerns. If Oxford were to lose its capacity to attract the best and brightest, the special place it has in the academic world could be in peril.
Chart 1 – Oxford’s Value Chain1
Dominus Illuminatio Mea10
Oxford quickly reacted to the vote by creating a communication channel to keep the community informed and reassured. The message was two-fold: there are no immediate consequences to students and faculty, and the funding received via the Horizon 2020 project (biggest Research and Innovation project in the history of the EU) is, for now, not affected by Brexit11. The university then crafted a short-term strategy to anticipate the consequences of the vote on the three pillars of its value chain.
- Research funding
In order to maintain a sufficient level of funding, Oxford joined other educational institutions to pressure the government to take actions such as making the UK an associate country of the EU research space12. The university obtained some guarantees from the UK Treasury to match EU funding wherever this funding is discontinued, for at least some period of time13.
- International students
Forecasting a drop in applications from European students, the university decided to refocus on non-EU international students (in particular Americans and Canadians)14. Those students used to be at a disadvantage with higher tuitions and more complex administrative processes. Oxford is hopeful that there is untapped potential outside of Europe.
- Faculty and researchers
Oxford’s priority is to ensure that its staff is confident it has a place in the UK. The Vice-Chancellor strengthened the importance of diversity and external contribution. Migration lawyers and pension experts were appointed to address possible concerns15.
Establishing a medium-term strategy depends on the outcome of the UK-EU negotiation. Preparing for the worst, Oxford has been considering opening a campus in France16. Beside solving the funding and staffing issues, this move could also be symbolic: Education and Innovation transcend borders, regardless of the political situation17.
I believe that two types of actions could be put in place to mitigate the risks of Brexit and possible future political events. On the one hand, the university should take actions to maintain its international aura. Those could include:
- New appeal: Create new levers to attract European students that would make up for the current concerns. Oxford could, for example, become a beacon for Europe’s entrepreneurship scene which is perceived as lagging behind America’s.
- Focus: Increase expertise in some key research sectors making the school an unavoidable partner. Researchers and projects would apply for Oxford rather that the other way around.
On the other hand, domestic-centered projects could be carried out to make the institution more independent. For example:
- Diversification: Develop industrial partnerships to obtain private research funding, reducing the reliance on public programs.
- New talent approach: Attract a higher proportion of low income, high-achieving students. Studies found that this population is largely untapped18.
The dilemma Oxford currently faces reflects the (remediable) failure of our society to adapt to a changing world. If the academic elite is so convinced of the benefits of international cooperation, why is more than half of the UK population tempted by isolationism?
Also, research funding comes from taxpayer money of specific countries. However, research findings are universal. How can academic institutions reconcile those two aspects?
1: Chart prepared by the author. Oxford logo from official website: www.ox.ac.uk (Nov. 2017)
2: Michael Pickford, “University Inputs, Outputs and Educational Technology”, British Journal of Educational Technology, May 1975, Vol.6(2), pp.61-70 [Peer Reviewed Journal]
3: David Matthews, “Brexit: growing numbers of UK academics face EU funding worries”, Times Higher Education, https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/brexit-growing-numbers-uk-academics-face-eu-funding-worries accessed on November 2017, published June 2016
4: Universities UK, “Higher education in numbers”, http://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/facts-and-stats/Pages/higher-education-data.aspx accessed on November 2017
5: Rachael Pells, “Number of EU students applying for UK universities falls by 7% since Brexit, latest figures reveal”, The Independent, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/eu-students-numbers-apply-uk-universities-fall-7-per-cent-brexit-latest-news-figures-a7558131.html accessed on November 2017, published February 2017
6: Ian Sample, “UK scientists dropped from EU projects because of post-Brexit funding fears”, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/jul/12/uk-scientists-dropped-from-eu-projects-because-of-post-brexit-funding-fears accessed on November 2017, published July 2016
7: Sally Weale, “UK university applications from EU down by 9%, says Ucas”, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/oct/27/uk-university-applications-from-eu-down-9-ucas accessed on November 2017, published October 2016
8: Oxford University, “Oxford and the EU”, https://www.ox.ac.uk/about/international-oxford/oxfords-global-links/europe/oxford-and-eu?wssl=1 accessed on November 2017
9: Joe Watts, “Brexit is risking student numbers and vital research funding, says head of Oxford University after school is named world’s best”, The Independent, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/brexit-latest-oxford-university-worlds-best-funding-research-louise-richardson-vice-chancellor-a7322186.html accessed on November 2017, published September 2016
10: “The Lord is my Light” – Oxford University’s Motto
11: European Commission, “What is Horizon 2020”, https://ec.europa.eu/programmes/horizon2020/en/what-horizon-2020 accessed on November 2017
12: Times Higher Education, “Allow ‘no leeway’ on UK staying in EU research, says Oxford chief”, https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/allow-no-leeway-uk-staying-eu-research-says-oxford-chief accessed on November 2017, published April 2017
13: Oxford University, “Horizon 2020 funding”, http://www.ox.ac.uk/news-and-events/oxford-and-brexit/latest-updates accessed on November 2017, published June 2017
14: Harry Yorke, “Brexit will be good for universities, Oxford’s new Head of Brexit strategy says”, The Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/2017/01/12/brexit-will-help-uk-universities-recruit-worlds-brightest-students/ accessed on November 2017, published January 2017
15: Europeaeum, “Oxford University prepares for Brexit impact”, https://europaeum.org/oxford-university-prepares-for-brexit-impact-2/ accessed on November 2017
16: Harry Cockburn, “Oxford University considering French campus amid research funding concerns after Brexit”, The Independent, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/oxford-university-french-campus-paris-brexit-a7589066.html accessed on November 2017, published February 2017
17: Harry Yorke, “Exclusive: Oxford University may break with 700 years of tradition and open a foreign campus – after France offers Brexit sweetener”, The Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/2017/02/19/exclusive-oxford-university-set-break-700-years-tradition-open/ accessed on November 2017, published February 2017
18: Caroline M. Hoxby et al., “The Missing ‘One-Offs’: The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low Income Students”, National Bureau of Economic Research Paper No. 18586 Issued in December 2012
19: Title photo: Official photo of the Oxford campus, ww.ox.ac.uk – accessed on November 2017