A Catch 2020: UK Universities Caught Between Brexit and COVID-19

2020 hasn’t exactly been a smooth sailing for UK universities and their students. With institutions struggling to deliver high-quality classes safely during a potential second wave and No-Deal Brexit hanging above our heads like a sword of Damocles, doubts regarding the continuation of the UK as a “higher education superpower” are arising. So, what does the future hold for a sector where one piece of bad news has followed the next during the past nine months? Spoiler alert: it’s looking kind of somber.

A Less Diverse Cohort

One of the biggest draws to study in the UK for me personally was the prospect of studying at a university with students from a wide array of backgrounds. The quality of intellectual exchange of ideas, in my experience, has always been higher if you’re collaborating with people who can contribute concepts and perspectives that are distinctly different from your own.

At my university more than 50% of students are either EU or International students while around 40% come from a lower socioeconomic class. Just under 50% are from a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic background. These stats are most likely about to change for a couple of reasons.

First, there’s the conundrum with this year’s A Levels in the UK. As schools shut their doors due to COVID-19 earlier this year, A Levels in summer were called off. Instead, teachers gave pupils predicted grades that, along with their previous achievements, were “put through a process of standardisation” that effectively gave students from prestigious schools bonus points for being enrolled in a school Ofqual's algorithm deemed “better”.

Even though Ofqual backtracked their grading process, a considerable amount of students who were downgraded according to their system accepted an offer from their second choice or decided to forgo university entirely. How’s that for better social mix?

Second, there will be fewer international students in the short- and EU-students in the long run. If we look at this academic year (that hasn’t started in quite a lot of universities yet), a lot of students are worried about embarking on their studies in the midst of a pandemic. A survey by the British Council revealed that almost a third of international students are likely to delay or cancel their plans to study. Some universities are bracing for as much as 50% fewer international students this year.

Meanwhile EU students will face a sharp increase of their tuition fees in 2021/22 after Brexit. On top of that the uncertainty about the specifics of the UK’s relationship with the EU will most likely last way past January 1st 2021, which will presumably deter one EU student or another.

Struggling To Keep A Seat At THE Table

The number of UK universities in global rankings reached a new low-point in 2020. Only two universities (Nespresso Oxbridge, what else?) made it into this year’s Times Higher Education (THE) ranking’s top 10. I personally oppose the belief that rankings should be used as the sole benchmark for quality education. However, the UK higher education sector has made scoring high in rankings one of their top priorities for reasons I’m about to explain, which is why I would argue that they are nonetheless a good indicator for things going south.

UK universities have become increasingly dependant on tuition fees since the marketisation of the higher education system. The introduction of full-cost international fees in 1980 paved the way for a free market model where universities compete for students and their purchase power. This change was accompanied by a quest for scoring high on rankings. A top position, on a UK league table for example, constitutes a huge pull factor, as it enables universities to credibly position themselves as a better “product” than their lower-ranking competitors. However, UK universities’ positions have been steadily declining since the Brexit referendum in 2016.

Many institutions found themselves forced to make budget cuts due to financial uncertainty caused by the looming cut-off from European research collaboration frameworks. As a result staff numbers and research performance, both criteria in the majority of national and international rankings, have been decreasing continuously.

This trend has only been amplified by the severe hit of the pandemic. UK universities are facing gaping budgetary holes at this point; Soas University of London for example sold parts of their estate, discontinued dozens of courses and closed entire departments, partially to counteract the impact of COVID on its mounting debt that it accumulated during the last three years. Taking into account that the UK government has not made any commitments to help alleviate the financial strains caused by the pandemic and a lack of EU funding, it is questionable if UK universities will be able to retain their pioneering role in research and beyond.

An Overall Worse University Experience

All of these exceptionally positive prospect lead me to the conclusion that prospective and current students will have to brace for a significantly worse university experience going forward. In the short term, the effects of COVID will influence virtually every facet of student life, mainly for the worse. There will be fewer face-to-face interaction with lecturers, fewer social activities and fewer opportunities for students to develop personally, professionally and academically.

At my university, social events have been drastically scaled back while access to university facilities will be heavily reduced once my term starts; funding for some of our external lectures has also been axed as a direct result of the pandemic.

In the long term, nobody can really gauge the extent of Brexit’s impact on the UK as a whole, let alone the higher education sector. However, first indicators of a drop in rankings as well as financial difficulties, the latter being amplified by absent international students this year, offer a glimpse into the future that may be ahead.

So what does the future hold for UK universities for the academic year 2020/21 and beyond? To say it with the words of this country’s prime minister: “tough times ahead”.