G7998F Westminster, London, UK. 25th June, 2016. Young female pro-remain protesters carrying poster saying
An immigration policy that treats overseas students and researchers as a problem to be managed is essentially self-defeating © Alamy

When government ministers talk about the UK’s strengths, they usually mention our universities. And rightly so. When it comes to higher education, the line so beloved of the speechwriters about Britain punching above our weight is undoubtedly true. But as we grapple with Brexit, these fine words are in danger of sounding hollow. Our universities are suffering as a result.

Domestically, an immigration policy that treats overseas students and researchers as a problem to be managed, rather than a boon for our economy and intellectual firepower, is self-defeating. Including students in the migration cap, setting too high a salary threshold for admitting academic staff and limiting post-study work opportunities puts UK universities at a competitive disadvantage. The debate around the current review into higher education, led by Philip Augar, suggests a zero-sum game between universities, which are global as well as local institutions, and further education’s technical and vocational courses. This simplistic idea of competing interests can only harm the sector.

Internationally, failing to associate fully with EU programmes such as Horizon Europe, for science, and Erasmus, for student exchanges — nor come to sensible arrangements on EU student fees — will also worsen the outlook.

I know from my time as a minister that no one in government ever took a decision deliberately to undermine the competitive position of our universities. In the big debate of our time, on being “open versus closed”, no one has decided that the UK will be closed. That’s not how the process works. Instead, you get a barely noticeable process of de-prioritisation, in which strategic decisions follow the path of least resistance. And in the current anti-elitist climate it is unfashionable to defend universities.

Even in a successful sector you need to keep swimming to stay afloat — we assume our universities will continue to do well because they have always done so. This is alarming. Our rivals in international education and research do not share this relaxed attitude: Australia, Canada and Germany, among others, work hard to recruit overseas students, build international research partnerships and show foreign researchers they are valued.

Michael Müller, the Mayor of Berlin, planned to make his city an international research hub. Unsurprisingly, Oxford has set up a joint programme with four Berlin universities. The Wellcome Trust is opening an office there. Once Britain is outside the EU, the Netherlands will have most of the English speaking universities in the bloc.

This competition means we need to think very hard before starting again at ground zero. Scrapping institutions or relationships for a utopian promise of something better is essentially un-Conservative. It takes significant amount of time, money and state capacity to replicate a well-established programme. Meanwhile, the rest of the world will be exploiting the gaps we’ve left.

Brexit’s most sophisticated advocates promised that leaving the EU would make the UK smarter in its engagement with the world. It is time we made good on this idea, rather than sleepwalking into the decline of one of the things our country excels at. This means engaging with our closest neighbours.

If we are serious about making our way in the world, with or without Brexit, we have to become more adept at global outreach and, crucially, play the long game. For the UK, this means recognising how fortunate we are that the English language is the lingua franca of law, business and culture; it is in our strategic interest to maintain this advantage.

There is nothing inevitable about our falling behind. We must act, plan and evolve to maintain our natural lead as English-speakers as the world changes. This means programmes like Erasmus must be evaluated in the round; yes, more EU students come to the UK than the other way around, but the soft power we gain from that is enormous.

If we want Global Britain to be more than a bumper sticker, we have to match our ambition with action. Ministers need to look decades ahead because that is what other countries are doing. A piecemeal, reactive approach will not do — we need a confident and considered long-term plan. This means a strategy that brings together migration policy with export opportunities, the potential for young Britons to live and study abroad and moves tomake it easier for our universities to expand overseas.

Our reputation as an educational superpower is based on attracting the talented and the entrepreneurial. Whether you are a Leaver or Remainer, if we are to succeed as a country that lives by its wits and stands at the forefront of science, technology and learning, then a world class university sector must lie at the heart of a positive vision of Britain’s future.

The writer was UK minister for higher education from January to November 2018

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