In January, our Chair Sam Laidlaw announced NCUB would assess the impacts of Brexit on university-business collaboration.
We sought to draw on the views of our members to determine what impacts they anticipated and what mitigations they had prepared. Now, we are seeking to extend and deepen this programme to more fully represent our members’ experiences – and sharpen the recommendations to Government.
Predicting and ameliorating Brexit’s potential impacts on the critical work taking place in the space between universities and businesses was in part hamstrung by the absence of clarity on what form that Brexit might take. From relations with European funding programmes, through the UK’s reputation as a stable home for investable propositions and corporate headquarters, to the ready availability of talent: higher education and industry have been presented with a kaleidoscope of possible outcomes, and preparation for no deal, in the eyes of several, seems prudent.
We attempted to understand the world as it was then, and as we anticipated it to be, through the careful deliberations of our members. But in the intervening weeks, despite a multitude of meaningful votes, all that has really moved is the clock – and we cannot speculate on Parliamentary events between the drafting and publication of this piece.
We have surfaced some fascinating findings. Through interviews with our membership we examined what ripple effects might be spreading into the space between universities and businesses where collaboration takes place.
Large-scale business members, for example, have noted some reticence on the part of potential EU-based partners when seeking to build collaborations with UK SMEs around EU funding streams – though typically this disquiet is allayed by reassurances from those larger firms. Whether this is maintained in the event of a no deal will in part depend on the UK’s relationship to funding programmes.
Others have voiced concern at the nature of any UK underwrite of continued membership of such programmes, and whether conditionality on this point would deter EU collaborators. Of course, with UK Shared Prosperity Fund in (albeit lengthy) development and potential Horizon Europe replacements scoped in the event of the UK departing EU framework programmes, this problem could be either obviated or significantly changed.
Similarly, both business and university members have reported a likely renewed focus on core activity in the event of a no deal – which would pose a short term problem in terms of the nature and number of projects undertaken collaboratively. Universities with NCUB membership are of course more likely to consider work with business as part of that central offer, alongside teaching and productive research. But most have posited that savings will still need to be found – particularly if pensions and Augar implementation also negatively impact the bottom line.
Additionally, some business members have observed that their interactions with global partners have reassured them that any reputational risk to the UK through no deal would not extend to perceptions of academic or research excellence. Though more troublingly they believe that the macro view of the UK as a partner is already observably damaged.
Universities contacted to date have broadly reported EU student and staff numbers predominantly holding steady – this is interpreted variously as a collective holding of breath or students coming while they feel they still can. One institution has noted the usual high quality of EU students and believes a decrease in their numbers – and corresponding reduced number of said students remaining in the UK as qualified graduates – would be a significant loss of national benefit.
All notable insights. But given legislative delays, we can learn more, and listen more. We want our recommendations to Government and agencies, universities and businesses, to be as richly sourced, tested and evidenced as possible. Whilst this may be NCUB’s first intervention of several in this space, dependent on member appetite and the unpredictable nature of events – we want to make it count. With the UK’s departure date from the EU shifting, we are taking the opportunity to further deliberate on and interrogate the available data; and to reiterate our call to members to engage in this work, and be part of the collective voice advocating for collaboration in post-Brexit Britain. For more information and to participate, please get in touch.