The good news is that Britain’s finest universities remain just that – world leaders in research, teaching and developing talent from anywhere on earth. The bad news is that they have slipped a little in the latest international league tables.
Last year Britain scored a respectable 10 entrants in the global top 100, including Oxford, Cambridge, various London institutions and Durham, but Durham has dropped out of the world league, leaving Britain with nine representatives, including Warwick. University College London and Imperial College London have also dropped down.
As with any academic activity, coming first isn’t everything, and sometimes it is not even realistic, so the slippage needs to be kept in perspective. However, the performance of British universities will be especially crucial after Brexit in the new “global Britain”, and there are policies that can be put in place now to prepare the country better for its future.
The most obvious and overdue reform to help secure global success as we approach the middle of the 21st century would be to take students and academics out of the migration target. This was a reform urged on Theresa May many years ago, during the coalition government of 2010-15, when chancellor George Osborne and business secretary Vince Cable virtually begged Ms May to soften her approach as home secretary. They were met with a hostile reception, and the students stayed in the figures, along with the researchers and the dons.
For too long, then, students, teachers and researchers who want to help build the reputation of British higher education – including but not confined to the global elite of institutions – have been prevented from doing so by an arbitrary cap designed to fit very different, pre-Brexit, political circumstances. With the free movement of labour throughout the EU coming to an end for the UK within the next few years – no one can be sure of the timings on Brexit – this is the ideal point to revisit the question of foreign student visas.
The obvious point, which must have been made to Ms May personally many times by the respective governments during her visits, is that China and India will require Britain to issue many more visas of every kind, but particularly for students, if the British are to stand any chance of reaching those coveted new trade deals. Thus far there has been little sign of flexibility from No 10. That will need to change.
More foreign students paying substantial fees would bolster the finances of British universities, which is the key to expansion and investment; boost local economies; create a potential pool of additional skilled labour to enter the British workforce post-degree or higher degree; and endow Britain with a generation of future global leaders with memories and gratitude to a country that welcomed them and helped them to help us, as with the Rhodes scholarships of the past, for example.
There is more that needs to be done, too. Despite the well-known prowess of “Silicon Fen”, Britain still lags behind other countries in linking academic research and innovation to the commercial world. Every university, ideally, should have a science park that would operate as a profit centre, ready to spin out processes or products to the benefit of the wider British economy, either from within the university sector itself or through new companies to be hived off.
There is much excited talk of Britain becoming a leader in such fields as artificial intelligence, electric cars and financial tech; if so, then it will need to innovate much more effectively than has been the case in the past.
Once again it comes back to a question of talent, and attracting the very best of it from around the world. We need them, they would like to come to Britain to learn, but we have an immigration cap zealously guarded by its progenitor, now residing in Downing Street and growling at anyone who tries to raise the subject. (Her rival Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, by contrast, has been honest and brave enough to admit that the cap has failed.)
“Global Britain” quickly become one of Ms May’s favourite soundbites after she embraced Brexit after the referendum; what a shame that she shows such a dismally insular attitude to its application to our great universities.