30th September 2016

The mourning after the night before

Whilst much is still unknown about how the referendum vote will play out, and whether we will even actually leave, the Higher Education (HE) sector has more reason that most to be worried about the fallout. If this is the case then graduate recruiters also need to be conscious of the ramifications, and factoring this into strategic talent planning.

In effect the HE sector is going through the classic stages of grief, with the current stage being a move from denial and anger into bargaining.

I spend a lot of time in universities, but my visits over the last few months have had one constant. The first 15 minutes of any conversation rotate around Brexit – the whys, the implications and the uncertainty. The vote has hit universities, and the people who work there, hard on both an intellectual and emotional level. Given the referendum took place on the night of the AGR dinner, there were also plenty of graduate recruiters who stayed up all night and were pretty upset about the result.

Major concerns

Funding is a concern, with universities benefiting significantly from European funding for a combination of science, research, and economic development projects. Research income alone from the EU amounts to more than £800m per year (Universities UK 2014/15 data). Whilst the chancellor recently guaranteed some of these funds to 2020 there is no commitment beyond that (and the odds are the earliest we would be out of the EU is 2019 anyway) so this is not going to calm too many nerves.

Significant university funding also comes from international students coming to study in the UK. There are currently around 21,000 EU students at UK universities, which amounts to around £567m in fees, added to this 23% of teaching income (c£4bn) comes from less regulated non-EU student fees. Both stand to be affected as new immigration and trade deals take shape with EU and non-EU countries alike. EU student and staff have been guaranteed no change for the 2016/17 academic year, but there are currently no longer term guarantees.

This final point about staff and student uncertainty leads us to the emotional toll that Brexit has taken in universities. Vice-chancellors, generally not known for their appeals to the emotions, have sent out a wave of supportive messages to EU staff such as this from the Vice-Chancellor at Bath:

“This is a very uncertain time, and while I expect it will be a while before we understand all of the effects of this decision, I know that it is starting to impact on many of you, and your families now.”

This difficult scenario does not take place in isolation, and there are a wide range of other major changes hurtling towards UK Higher Education at the moment, including the new HE bill, apprenticeship levy, changes to research funding and a new regulator. This has led some in the sector to call for some or all of this to be paused, such as Dave Phoenix, Vice-Chancellor at London South Bank University who stated: “In light of the Brexit vote I have made clear my view that we should slow the pace of change and possibly delay the passage of the Bill”.

Perhaps the bigger existential issue that emerges from the referendum vote is the growing narrative that as a society we are increasingly rejecting expertise, and living in a ‘post-fact’ world. The famous £350m a week the UK was told by Leave that it would get from not paying our EU subs was debunked consistently before the poll and is likely to be dwarfed by the costs of leaving, yet it appeared to work.

As Tim Harding puts it in his excellent essay ‘the rejection of expertise’, this phenomenon is a:

“Google-fuelled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of divisions between professionals and amateurs, teachers and students, knowers and wonderers…not only a rejection of knowledge, but also the processes of knowledge acquisition.”

The rejection of experts is a major challenge for universities, and higher education needs to get back on the front foot in challenging this notion. As the UK leaves the EU we will need our experts more than ever, whether it is international relations specialists to support a myriad of trade negotiations or historians to help us axoid mistakes from the past around societal intolerance. Universities also need to ask themselves why in many cases the communities surrounding them voted to leave, and rejected much of the expertise. This could partly be ascribed to university engagement with local communities often being superficial rather than substantive.


We may see some universities fail in the next few years, something previously not allowed to happen by government. The funding gaps may tip some already financially troubled institutions over the edge, creating unprecedented issues for their staff, students and alumni.

Talent availability for recruiters clearly has the potential to be threatened by Brexit. The likely reduction in overseas students at UK universities will also be accompanied by a UK demographic dip, meaning the quantity and quality of graduates may reduce. Should Brexit result in tit-for-tat border restrictions with other EU countries, it may also make it harder for UK graduate recruiters to bring in graduates in skills shortage areas from countries with higher unemployment, such as Spain.

As outlined earlier, the attraction of international students could be severely damaged by both practical restrictions (borders and visas), and a shift to Britain being seen as unwelcoming, There have already been numerous articles in US HE journals positioning Brexit as an opportunity for US universities to attract in more international students and talented staff and researchers.

The employability of graduate talent remains a contentious issue between employers and universities, and a potential reduction in overseas students in UK classrooms could have a diminishing effect on employability as well. A wide range of surveys and reports from the likes of the OECD and World Economic Forum cite cultural adaptability as a key competency sought by employers. A reduction in exposure to people from different countries inevitably reduces opportunities for cultural development, made worse by the likely loss of the hugely beneficial Erasmus exchange scheme.


Whilst this article may seem to paint a somewhat gloomy picture, there are opportunities that could emerge from Brexit and surrounding events, should Higher Education chose to engage with them.

Theresa May has reorganised government departments, including pushing HE to the Education department and creating BEIS (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy). Whilst the jury is still out on how to pronounce BEIS (Bice?), we can be fairly sure that an industrial strategy will emerge.

It is vital that universities and graduate recruiters present a strong lobbying voice into the development of this strategy, underscoring the critical importance of a fully functional high level skills talent pipeline to economic growth in a post-Brexit environment.

There is also an opportunity to reinvigorate the local and the global, in terms of universities focusing more on their immediate vicinity and/or on broader global ties beyond the EU. In particular, increased local engagement offers an opportunity to better connect with a public sceptical about experts and demonstrate the positive impact HE can have on local communities. Part of this includes improving connectivity with local employers, and collaborating to understand future talent needs at a strategic level.

On the global front, one of the most prominent cheerleaders for an increasingly global outlook is the PVC at Bournemouth University, Dr Sonal Minocha, who recently wrote:

“Whilst Britain may have exited the EU, British universities have not. We may have left the political and economic union, but we will never let the intellectual, cultural and educational links collapse…We still retain the power to transform individuals, communities and societies, irrespective of the colour of the passport, and we now have the potential to make UK higher education even more influential on the global stage.”

In May Gradcore hosted our first European conference in Brussels, at the heart of the EU, and spent time with senior figures from universities and graduate recruitment. The time we spent together reaffirmed to me the importance of cross-border collaboration, talent development and knowledge sharing for the good of people, places and businesses. The mood at that conference was one of cautious optimism that the UK would remain, but that didn’t happen and we all need to adjust to that reality. Many challenges lie ahead for UK HE, and there are knock on effects for graduate recruiters, but there are also opportunities. In that light everyone who works in this field needs to move quickly into bargaining mode, and get the best possible deal available.

Martin Edmondson