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Make Brexit a new start for UK international education

12 May 2017

One of the best parts of my job is travelling around the country visiting colleges. I’ve been all over the world, but I’ve seen more of the UK in the last six months since joining AoC than in the last six years combined. My travels have been particularly enlightening in the wake of last June’s EU referendum vote. I live in Edinburgh and work in London, so spend a lot of time back and forth cross-country. And from Taunton to Sunderland, from major city to market town, I’ve talked about Brexit with anyone and everyone from taxi drivers to strangers on trains to college staff. Opinion is always divided. Brexit is the obvious backdrop to the 8 June elections. Despite apparent voter fatigue, people are waiting to see what happens as we prepare to leave the EU, and how it will affect our lives. AoC’s position on the EU referendum was to support members whatever the outcome. Our role is to represent the sector, and to secure the best possible outcomes for colleges on matters of education policy, as outlined in our election manifesto. But for the vast majority of people like me who work specifically in international education, Brexit was bad news. The Brexit vote sent out all the wrong signals to valued international partners; that the UK is unwelcoming to anyone from overseas, is isolationist, heading for empire number two. Constant media coverage was partly responsible (‘take back control, take back control’). So how bad will Brexit be for business? UK international education exports are a £17.5 billion industry. Will international students go where they get a warmer welcome (and warmer weather)? Will European student mobility and partnership funding stop? The answer is we don’t know yet, and it will probably be several years before we can measure the impact – positive or negative – on the sector. However, international education isn’t just about the money, and the success of the UK’s education export market doesn’t depend solely on Europe. Visiting Beijing in March, one of our Chinese partners told me that it made no difference to China whether the UK stayed in the European Union or not. The EU’s population is 508 million, China’s is 1.37 billion. If you’re sitting in another country, how Brexit will affect your future relations and trade agreements with the UK all depends on how important you think the EU and the UK are. They won’t be your only trading partners, and since the beginning of time, borders and trade routes have adapted to political change. So on Brexit, of one thing I am certain. International education is bigger than Brexit. International education has visas and immigration controls, but it does not have borders. That might sound trite, but it’s true. International education is transnational, global and online. It’s not simply an industry turning a profit. International education is genuinely about knowledge transfer, pedagogy and cultural exchange. That won’t stop with Brexit. Colleagues in educational institutions won’t stop talking to their overseas counterparts overnight. So my election plea to all political parties is to make Brexit a new start for UK international education. It’s simple, soft diplomacy. Get to know what all tiers of the UK education sector can offer internationally – look at the technical and English language sphere - so the UK can maintain its global reputation for quality education. And above all, let’s make sure we don’t forget those British values, and we keep our campuses welcoming, inclusive and diverse. Emma Meredith is the International Director for the Association of Colleges.