Lets make England’s Brexit led education difficulty our opportunity

Theresa May’s plans for Brexit may have suffered a setback after campaigners won their high court battle over her decision not to seek parliamentary approval before starting the process. Nevertheless, any move by the UK to leave the EU is likely to pose significant challenges. If it is hard, as favoured by the British prime minister, it implies that the UK will be outside the customs union with all the trade dislocation that that implies.

The rationale, such as it is, for that decision,  is that all modes of staying within the customs union will require freedom of movement of people.  And that is the rub. The predominant reason for voting no was around immigration, conflated with a notion of taking back control (of borders, usually unsaid).  This opens an opportunity for Ireland, if it can show the vision to grasp it

 In a MSc class recently, with about 60% non Irish, mostly non EU, we spoke about Brexit. The overwhelming view of those students was that, as one Indian student noted “the british have voted to close themselves off from the world and its currents” . A great part of how this will work out, is a significant clampdown on student numbers. This is not the first nor will it be the last time that international students have been the target of the Tory desire to reduce net immigration.   Post Brexit EU students will have the same status as those from India, or the USA. EU students make up up to 20% of some UK university courses and approx. 6.5% of total students.

A further uncertainty resolves around the status of EU citizens working in the UK ; it remains unclear as to whether they whom amongst them will retain automatic rights to work there, and who will be liable for , frankly, removal.  Amongst the large number of EU citizens working in the UK are   those in the education sector, accounting for up to 17% of UK university level academics.  Regardless of the formalities, the perceived reality is that the UK is no longer as friendly a place for EU citizens to make a career.

So we have a UK which is determined to reduce international students, despite the  €40b plus they contribute to the UK economy, and which is a much chillier place than heretofore, and getting colder, for the 35,000 plus EU academics. This is a wonderful position for us.

Ireland has a strong but small international student sector. Some estimates put it at a level of exports, for that is what it is when one sells education services to international students, as being in the region of €1.5b, essentially the same as beverages. Education, particularly third level education, has a massive multipliereffect on the economy- each education job supports 6-8 additional jobs in other sectors and each € spent in third level multiplies between 3 and 4 times.  We know from international work that increasing third level institutions is associated with significant increases in longrun growth paths. Doubling the number of universities results in an increase of 4% in longrun GDP per capita. Finally, we know that there is a strong desire for university status in the Institute of Technology sector, a move which the Technological Universities Bill is designed to address.  Finally, all the evidence points to the development of a income contingent loan scheme as being the way which the government will seek to address the funding crisis in higher education

This constellation of events suggests to me a integrated solution.  We should offer to the best (as defined by clear bibliometric and peer evaluation) eu staff in the UK an opportunity to transfer to the Irish sector. We should focus this in the first instance on the AHSS sphere, with the provision that these initial transfers move to the new universities, setting up AHSS faculties in the Institutes of Technology to complement existing STEM faculties and to allow them to transfer to University status when and if they have a solid faculty in place . We should focus the STEM hires  initially on the best STEM faculties in the state. This would allow the potential to supercharge the university STEM faculties and “backfill” the IoT’s need for AHSS , essential if they are to become comprehensive universities.  We should  step up our recruitment of EU students to complement our Non EU ambitions.

There is a massive demand for higher education internationally. Universities can and should both be entrepreneurial in their aims and be allowed to be same. Giving non EU (including soon UK) students rights to spend up to one year after a Bachelors, 3 after a masters and 5 after a PhD , working here on the same basis as EU students, that would make Ireland extremely attractive. Add in the English speaking, democratic, EU membership issues and we should be able to craft a world class international education offering.

To do this would require that the government remove, forthwith, the micromanaging Employment control framework which is an absolute growth killer in the sector, but simultaneously make clear that new faculty hires will have to be funded from new student growth. This latter is how the Trinity Business School is expanding – the new building and new faculty hires are not costing the taxpayer a penny. It is improbable that all AHSS areas will cover their costs. To be a university, nonetheless, these are required, but the stricture of the institution being required to show that it can support these from “excess” demand elsewhere should be maintained.  Ireland is amazingly well positioned. Small changes can make it only better, if Minister Bruton has the courage to grasp the opportunity


An opinion piece published in the Irish Times.