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Not many academics are overjoyed about Brexit. But for Anu Bradford, it has provided a big opportunity.
The professor in international economic law and EU law at New York’s Columbia University used to struggle to attract enough people to fill her course.
Then in June came the UK’s vote to leave the EU. Prof Bradford organised a Brexit conference in Columbia’s Italian Academy and the venue was filled to capacity. At the start of this academic year, her intake on the EU law course — which is only an optional element of the Masters of Law and Doctor of the Science of Law degree programmes — had doubled from the year before.
Brexit might be a political problem for the UK government and a concern for British universities worried about becoming less attractive to overseas students and staff. But for some academics, it is a teaching opportunity. Law students, for their part, are realising that preparing themselves to deal with complex problems thrown up by the UK referendum vote to leave the EU is likely to make them more employable after graduation.
Before the Brexit vote, Prof Bradford could not sell EU law to Columbia students. “One student said to me, ‘Why would I want to study this subject? I might as well study Soviet law’,” recalls the Finnish-born professor. “I think I would have an easier time of it if I was teaching about dealmaking or Chinese law.”
Now, her students see the course as a way of improving their chances in a difficult job market
In the UK, figures from the Law Society of England and Wales show that the number of students accepted on to law courses in 2015-2016 was more than triple the number of training contracts solicitors’ firms offered new graduates. Competition in the US is similarly fierce.
One student who signed up to Prof Bradford’s course was Aaron Rogoff, who is in the third year of his law doctorate and hopes to work in white-collar litigation for the healthcare and life sciences industries after graduation.
“For those of us going to work for large international law firms, there is an expectation that many clients will be multinational companies, and that we cannot afford to be ignorant of major international political changes,” he says.
Knowledge of the legal problems associated with Brexit could have wider use. For example, it could be applicable to trade negotiations in Asia after US President Donald Trump pulled his country out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal in January, Mr Rogoff says.
It is not only US law schools that have found an opportunity. British business schools fear losing research funding and overseas students following the UK vote to leave the EU, especially if the split leads to greater immigration controls. But many UK schools regard Brexit as an opportunity, given that it has heightened interest among students in gaining knowledge about a world where global business must adjust to countries renegotiating their trading terms.
Henley Business School, part of the University of Reading, is one UK institution planning elective programmes teaching the implications of Brexit.
Subjects include understanding how logistics may work in a world where trade agreements are being rewritten and the need for new business regulations, says Elena Beleska-Spasova, Henley’s head of post-experience postgraduate programmes. “There is a feeling that we can be an expert in this area,” she says.
George Yip, a professor of strategy at Imperial College Business School, added a discussion on Brexit to the international business elective he teaches to MBA students.
His course deals with the difference Brexit will make to multinational companies headquartered in the UK, using this as an opportunity to look at the differences for companies headquartered outside the EU and what changes a multinational company should make post Brexit.
Academics must adapt their material to reflect the changing political environment, especially at UK business schools, to ensure students are up to date with their knowledge, says Prof Yip.
“I’ve already added a welcoming message to students saying what an incredible time it is in the history of the world to be discussing issues of international business,” he says.
Teaching about the practical implications of Brexit is a way for academics to regain legitimacy in the debate about what business and society does now, according to Simon Collinson, chair of the Chartered Association of Business Schools, a membership body for UK institutions.
“Business schools are good at being responsive, adjusting their teaching to political and economic changes like these,” he says.
UK institutions are well placed to teach about the specific issues created by Brexit, such as negotiation techniques, but this will not offset the problems facing the sector as a result of the UK’s split with the EU, Mr Collinson adds.
“There is a transition happening that is going to mean people will need more of the skills we teach, but I don’t think this is going to offset a decline in overseas students.”