Brexit and Its Implications for Our Students
by Pat Taylor (Marist College)
When I went on my first NAFA study tour to the United Kingdom, in 2012, the world economy was in a so-called recovery from the hard hit it had taken in 2008, Barack Obama was cruising toward his second term, and the Scottish Independence Referendum was all the buzz, particularly when we touched down in Edinburgh. We all thought it was a singularly interesting time to visit the United Kingdom.
Singularity is as singularity does.
I do believe our 2016 NAFA crew in the United Kingdom was privy to an extraordinary confluence of political events at home and in our host country. Packing my bags, I worried about how I could, in good conscience, make a reasonable account for Donald J. Trump, even as I tried on different versions of appropriately diplomatic questions about Brexit. While I anticipated our timing would be fascinating, I could never have imagined how timely, in fact, our visit would become.
The Trump/Brexit conversation initially took second place to the particularly fine weather that graced our first week on the ground: we heard either gratitude for having brought the sun or requests that we report to our students the typicality of these bright days. Still, soon we were engaged in more and more searching conversations with our hosts about the kind of world we are confronting, with an emphasis on the populists in both of our countries.
On a sunny green in Belfast, just before going in for dinner and stirring presentations from Queen’s University faculty, the NAFA sub-group enjoyed wine with our hosts. Just then, one of them leaned toward me, beginning, “About the U.S. elections. . . .” I thought she was going to inquire about my vote, but she went to the core: “No, no! Of course I don’t know who you are voting for, but about Trump . . . ?” She was clearly apprehensive until I made clear that he was not at all my choice.
From there, it became a more sustained—and more elaborate—exchange as we made our way across Great Britain. What became clear is that every single one of our UK colleagues was just as appalled by the very concept of a Trump presidency as by any prospect of success for the Brexit vote, a view universally shared by the NAFA delegation. This makes complete sense. Nearly every single fellowships advisor is in the business of helping our students to expand their world (in every sense). And “internationalization” was the refrain on virtually every campus we visited—even more so than had been the case in 2012.
By the time we left the United Kingdom, our UK friends were increasingly apprehensive about the Brexit polls; they literally asked us to pray for them. Six days after I returned to Poughkeepsie, NY, on June 25, the success of the Brexit campaign was announced.
In response to some thank you notes I sent to our UK hosts, I received some memorable replies:
“Thanks Pat. I think it’s your heartfelt sympathy we need right now. The world has gone completely mad—but note Bristol at least voted to remain in the EU. We are thinking of declaring a nation state. Hope you fare better in the next political minefield!”
“We are dismayed by the Brexit vote. It may have the effect of us redoubling our efforts to work with U.S. institutions—a silver lining!”
So what are the implications of the Brexit vote for us and for our students?
An article published in the Financial Times on the eve of the Brexit vote provides a particularly useful look at financial strategies adopted by some of the major UK research universities. The astute reader can extrapolate from this article the impact Brexit might have on those strategies.
The short and simplistic answer: it’s not yet clear, and we will need to await the election of a new UK Prime Minister and the execution of Brexit next steps (whatever form these take—and if they in fact happen) in “exiting” the European Union before we can begin to predict their impacts. It will probably be at least another two years before the full meaning of Brexit for our students’ prospects for advanced study in the United Kingdom is at all clear.
In a very crude and summary way, this is accurate—but not particularly helpful right now and for the short term. In truth, we cannot “know” the immediate implications for our students’ aspirations, but we can keep some variables in mind.
Brexit had immediate and resounding impacts on the British pound, on international stock exchanges, and on the political choices of both Labour and Conservative candidates. These impacts will continue.
While a stronger U.S. dollar may make UK graduate study even more appealing to our relatively well-off students, greater financial demands on the UK government and on universities in the United Kingdom in a context of reduced resources may result in fewer or decreased funding schemes for international students coming to that country—including U.S. students. While the Rhodes, Gates, and Marshall Foundations may be resilient, to differing degrees, these entities are probably keeping sharp eyes on post-Brexit developments.
That is most likely going to be our best, if not wholly satisfactory, strategy—that, and becoming even more agile in guiding our students to other and/or supplementary funding strategies for their proposed studies in the United Kingdom. It may well be that the many discussions that the NAFA delegation had with our UK colleagues about collaboration and partnerships underscore an essential approach to navigating this new, post-Brexit terrain.