29 August 2017
by Ludovic Highman

Put UK universities at the centre of free trade deals

Can British universities be at the centre of free trade agreements post-Brexit, asks Ludovic Highman in University World News.

British higher education is the fifth-largest export sector in the United Kingdom. According to the Treasury (2015), the UK has a target to increase educational exports from £18 billion (US$23 billion) in 2012 to £30 billion (US$38 billion) by 2020.

Canada, the United States and Australia also attach great importance to higher education as a service that generates a significant source of income.

But how can UK universities ensure that their voice is heard in large-scale, multi-sectoral free trade agreements, or FTAs, post-Brexit, given that FTAs are prone to secrecy, and conducted at the highest spheres, with little need for accountability?

The government aims to capitalise on the reputation of British universities as a political bargaining chip in broader negotiations. In many ways, British higher education and research is highly attractive and internationally focused. The UK has the most productive science base of all G7 countries, according to 2013 figures, and it has the second-highest share of mobile international students in the world.

Close to 50 per cent of British academic papers are co-authored with an international partner, and Australia, Canada, China and the US all feature in the top 10 countries the UK collaborates with. Nonetheless, 47 per cent of UK internationally co-authored publications from 2008-12 were with European Union and European Economic Area partners so securing an FTA with the EU that includes higher education and research is paramount.

Little appetite for including HE and research in FTAs

There is a lot of talk about including higher education and research in the fabric of future FTAs. Their presence is relatively unusual, as only 24 per cent of the 279 FTAs signed between 1958 and 2015 have included provisions on research and only 20 per cent contain provisions on education. Furthermore, only a very small minority of these are legally enforceable.

Another notable point is that there are no legally binding agreements between two developed countries that cover either education or research (the exception being within the EU). While their inclusion may seem laudable, it does not appear to be something potential partners feel very comfortable with, as illustrated by the fact that none of the FTAs signed by Canada or the USA contain a provision directly related to education.

The EU as a partner or competitor in HE and research?

Furthermore, the EU is already fully engaged in higher education and research cooperation with countries and regions around the world, via its policy dialogue fora on higher education policy. Some of these countries and regions have historical links with EU states, and often share a common language.

The UK government will have to work hard to engage with these countries on the same issues, and in crude terms will have to make the most of its higher education and research ‘assets’. Here lies the opportunity for UK universities to be fully involved in the process.

Universities need to act as catalysts for innovation and potential gateways to their respective regions, through stronger links with local business and industry, notably through expanding mechanisms such as Higher Education Innovation Funding and Knowledge Transfer Partnerships.

In addition, interaction with local communities, via public engagement, can help empower people and ensure that the research produced by universities is relevant to society, while making people feel they have a stake in the university located in their midst, thereby further connecting universities to their regions.

The negotiating power of regional blocs such as the EU, and its effectiveness in harmonising educational matters such as higher education degree cycles, or academic credits, should not be downplayed. It has already created a blueprint in higher education standards for the continent and neighbouring regions.

With regard to research opportunities that could be integrated into an FTA with the EU, while the UK has much to gain from a future agreement allowing it access to the European Research Area, the reverse is not necessarily true.

Some argue that British excellence in research has benefited the EU (and vice versa), but in an increasingly competitive higher education market, some member states and their higher education institutions will naturally lobby for the UK to be kept out of a scheme where UK universities are currently net beneficiaries.

Everyone wants the biggest slice of the pie, and now the UK has left the table, it will be difficult to return without concessions.

The argument that the UK contributes to cutting-edge research will not weigh high in political negotiations. Other EU countries will be keen to increase the share of research funds available via the European Framework Programmes for their own universities.

There will be little if no appetite to allow for the ‘Oxfords’ and ‘Cambridges’ to compete for EU funds on the same basis as EU higher education institutions simply for the ‘greater benefit of science’.

Four of the top five higher education recipients of EU funds under the current Horizon 2020 programme are British universities and include the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, University College London and Imperial College London. There are no doubt other EU institutional leaders, academics and policy-makers who see this as an opportunity.

Finally, it cannot be taken for granted that UK universities establishing a commercial presence in an EU country, via a university campus, to gain access to EU funds, is something our closest neighbours are waiting for with open arms – just as it is unlikely that the University of Oxford would warmly welcome an initiative from Paris-Sorbonne University setting up shop opposite the Bodleian Library, or that the London colleges would be happy to see a Humboldt University campus on the Strand, with the declared objective to be eligible for UK Research Council funds.

A joint top-down and bottom-up approach

While the UK government has indicated it is keen to include higher education and research in FTAs, it is also important that universities play an active role in the process and finalisation of an FTA.

First, the higher education sector as a whole needs to identify strategic partners they wish to engage with in higher education and research.

Second, the sector needs to elaborate clear and realistic objectives for each partner with which the UK government proposes to sign an FTA. There can be no ‘one-size-fits-all’ policy, and specific preferences need to be discussed as soon as possible, even before the official talks begin.

Third, the higher education sector must already discuss future frameworks for collaboration with the appropriate bodies in partner countries.