On Thursday June 23rd, the UK will vote either to remain in or leave the European Union (EU). And universities are lobbying to remain, fearful that a leave vote will put the future of higher education in the UK at risk.
Universities UK - an organization representing the country’s university leaders – has slammed a Brexit, arguing that the 125,000 EU students in the UK generate over $3 billion (£2.2 billion) for the economy and create 19,000 jobs. Now, many of the country’s leading business school faculty are following suit.
“It would be a disaster if we left,” says Nigel Driffield, professor of international business at Warwick Business School.
“Our fundamental raison d'être is the long-term value of business education we provide. And I see that being challenged.”
For Nigel, a leave vote jeopardizes the UK’s participation in the free trade of the Single Market, encourages an exodus of multinational corporations from the UK and puts UK-based business school students’ careers at risk.
“If we leave, there’s going to be less foreign investment coming into the UK, and so there’ll be fewer high-end jobs,” he argues.
Ultimately, the consequences of a Brexit are unknown. Yet the fear among business schools is real. London Business School’s dean, Andrew Likierman, has called Brexit “bad news.”
And Andrew Scott, professor of economics at LBS, agrees: “The biggest effect from Brexit will be a weak economy; and that will be hard for all UK educational institutions,” he says.
“The initial uncertainty will throw a cloud over UK business school applications,” he continues. “And there’ll be a temporary switch away from UK business schools and towards European business schools.”
In fact, a Brexit could put the diversity of the UK’s business schools under threat, with visa restrictions complicating the ease with which EU nationals can study in the UK. Non-EU international students studying in the UK but looking for careers in the EU, may also suffer.
London Business School’s top tier MBA program is 90% international. But its students are concerned:
“Would LBS lose its reputation as an international school if we left the EU?” asks Scottish student Lucy Hancock. “Would it lose its credibility? Would that then impact me?”
The diversity of UK schools is a huge differentiating factor over competition from the US. Yet a Brexit could discourage international students and staff from coming to the UK, and encourage UK students and staff to leave.
“Already, I’ve had five emails from deans of European business schools that essentially say: ‘We think your prospects are going to get worse in the UK if you leave, would you like to discuss a job?’ says Nigel.
“I’m not egotistical enough to assume that I’m the only person to have received that email.”
Anton Muscatelli is principal of the University of Glasgow, advisor to the Scottish government and one of the UK’s leading economists. Speaking in a personal capacity, he downplays the direct effect of a Brexit on business education, but admits that there is little to gain from leaving the EU:
“Brexit would have an undoubtedly negative impact on the UK economy,” he says. “And hence on the level of investment which UK business might make in research and investment in skills, some of which may impact on business schools.”
In fact, UK universities reportedly receive over $1.7 billion (£1.2 billion) in EU research funding per year. And while the majority funds research in science and technology, Nigel thinks that if the funding is lost, business schools are likely to take the hit.
“I don’t think anyone believes that the level of support for science and research would be maintained at a government level were we to leave the EU,” he says.
He’s wrong. Some business school professors are backing a Brexit. Among them, Ben Ferrett, senior lecturer in economics at Loughborough University business school.
“We make a net financial contribution to Europe,” he says. “If we left, we could save on that. We could choose to put the same amount of money into research if we wanted to, and indeed more.”
Why is he voting leave? “It’s about democracy,” he says. “The institutions of the EU don’t work well, and they’re prone to special interests and lobbying.”
Alan Sked, a professor at London School of Economics (LSE), agrees: “The UK should back Brexit in order to become a normal self-governing democracy again,” he says. “This would save it money and allow it to trade more easily with the rest of the world.”
For Alan, a leave vote would actually have positive implications for UK business schools: “The best universities are outside the EU and we could strengthen our links with them,” he says.
And despite a tide of opinion against them, neither Alan nor Ben see any negative consequences of a Brexit on business education in the UK.
“The risk of a Brexit is being strongly overplayed,” says Ben. “Higher education is actually a great British success story. We do well in terms of getting students to come here, and I don’t see that changing.”