Forging international ties is key to sustaining our Great British institutions
There is currently a great deal of uncertainty around the future of the UK higher education sector following the result of the EU Referendum. Recent news has highlighted concerns that institutions may lose up to 15 per cent of staff unless freedom of movement is maintained, with universities now considering plans to open branches inside the European Union in efforts to soften the blow of Britain’s exit. Perhaps most acute is the fear that the UK’s global reputation for higher education and research could be at risk, with more than 80 per cent of university chiefs saying in a recent survey that the threat to funding from the EU is “considerable”.
The UK is currently a net contributor to the EU budget. Between 2007 and 2013, the UK contributed €77.7 billion to the EU, and received €47.5 billion of funding in return. Despite this, however, the UK is one of the largest recipients of research funding in the EU, and while national contributions to the EU budget are not itemised, analyses suggest that the UK receives a greater amount of EU research funding than it contributes. The UK Office of National Statistics reports an indicative figure for the UK’s contribution to EU research and development of €5.4 billion between 2007 and 2013. During this time, the UK received €8.8 billion in direct EU funding for research, development and innovation activities. The widespread concern that this will negatively impact the UK higher education landscape is, therefore, justified.
In terms of thinking about the future, one need only look to the UK’s existing track record of successfully building relationships and collaborating with non-EU countries. Far from being an unattainable goal, and a potential threat to our reputation and global standing, cementing ties with institutions around the world is something that UK universities already do, and do well.
The UK is a world leader in internationally collaborative research. A huge 46.3 per cent of UK research publications involved an international collaboration in 2012, and since 2003 the rate has grown faster than any of its key competitors, with the exception of the USA – although here, only 30.3 per cent of total publications are internationally co-authored.
In addition, five of the UK’s top 10 collaboration partners around the world are from outside of the EU. One of these is Switzerland, whose scientific research institutions are consistently recognised as being the highest quality in the world, and with whom Britain shares its highest ‘field weighted citation impact’ of 3.34, making it one of the UK’s most successful international partnerships. In total, the number of research papers produced via international collaboration with these countries is 329,142 – three in five of which are through non-EU partnerships.
More than this, it is evident from international student numbers that UK degrees are still considered highly prestigious, and this is something that must be capitalised on. In the year 2014/15, the UK attracted almost 400,000 international students. This continues a trend of significant growth, with a 2013 report showing that that year, the UK was the second most popular destination in the world for international students, attracting a total of 416,69. This is up 63.3 per cent from 2003, compared to the 33.8 per cent increase witnessed by the USA, the number one destination, in the same ten year period.
Furthermore, of the 2014-15 intake, from the top 20 countries of student origin, 86,620 arrivals were from the EU, compared to 209,575 – more than double – from elsewhere in the world. This highlights that the UK already successfully attracts students from across the globe, and is testament the global recognition of the value of a British education. On top of its academic strengths, the UK is the most recommended destination by international students among its top English-speaking competitors, namely the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and its graduates have among the lowest unemployment rates in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
The threat of Brexit has caused consternation in almost every UK industry, and with current calls for Britain to step up its exporting performance in efforts to mitigate the economic costs associated with Brexit, now is the time for us to make the most of one of our biggest and boldest export markets: education. Academic travel has arguably never been as important or necessary as now.
In this climate of uncertainty, forging strong relationships (and taking advantage of freedom of movement) is crucial. Academics must reassure students in light of the recent controversy caused by Amber Rudd’s intention to introduce a restrictive student visa system, and prove that the UK is committed to international collaboration and maintaining the high standards that draw students to the UK in the first place.
Far from bending to the suggestion that the UK will become inward-facing following its departure from the EU, universities across Britain should be taking full advantage of this opportunity to develop new, and enhance existing, relationships with institutions around the world. Academic travel must play a central role, forming research ties that will bolster the reputation of UK higher education internationally, as well as reinforcing to students globally that it is ‘business as usual’ over here. In addition, academics will be able to enhance their own teaching by being able to offer a truly global perspective, and turning the notion that the UK is inward-looking on its head.
The scale of what is now needed from UK institutions requires a structured and easy-to manage approach. Not only is extensive international outreach challenging for academics, travelling to new countries and encountering a diverse range of cultures, but for the procurement teams who must tackle the financial and logistical challenges of academic travel.
On a recent visit to Kenya, International Development Secretary Priti Patel announced that major multinational aid funding may be cut unless organisations spend better and waste less. “We have to make sure that our aid works in our national interest and also that it works for our taxpayers,” she said. “Much more openness, much more transparency and much more accountability.” While her comments do not directly impact the academic travel landscape, the sentiment behind them is still very pertinent. In times when tuition fees are unprecedentedly high, it is necessary for procurement teams to demonstrate the best value for money, working with a travel management company that can help them to avoid problematic and often expensive hidden travel costs, and ensure that international outreach is targeted, efficient, and above all, cost-effective.
Universities should now be able to turn confidently to their travel management partner to create a seamless plan of action, to allow academics to focus on the task at hand, bolstering our reputation worldwide and showing that the UK does, truly, mean business.
Christopher Airey, Managing Director of Diversity Travel.
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