In conversation... Shirley Atkinson and Professor Clive Mulholland

21 Nov 2016

On a recent trip to Scotland, MillionPlus sat down with Professor Clive Mulholland, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Highlands and Islands and Shirley Atkinson, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Sunderland to discuss the implications of Brexit, social mobility and the Higher Education Bill.

MillionPlus: Now that we’re a few months removed from the vote, what are your thoughts on Brexit and what it might mean for universities?

Clive Mulholland: Brexit is particularly challenging for universities in that they aren’t just national entities but they work internationally as well. Europe is very important to institutions like the University of the Highlands and Islands, where a significant amount of our funding comes from European Structural Funds as well as research programmes like Horizon 2020. So, it poses a significant risk.

Shirley Atkinson: I think there are wider implications of Brexit; we talk about the impact on staff and on students and on funding as Clive said, but what’s interesting to me is some of the potential broken relationships that Brexit vote may have caused. Certainly, some of the staff community who are of European origin are feeling fairly disillusioned and not necessarily welcome any more. I think there is a long-term job to be done in rebuilding some of those relationships with some our key partner countries in Europe. Regardless of the outcome we reach regarding staff, students and funding in future, that underlying relationship issue is quite profound.

CM: I would echo that. We’ve already got evidence of how this has impacted on research projects that we’re doing. Some major projects with European partners have suddenly gone cold because of the uncertainty. Staff are querying whether they’ll be able to stay, so it’s unsettled them; we have evidence that some staff are already looking for other positions.

SA: I think one of the things we have to look out for is that institutions, if they can’t access the talent that they need or the research funding that they need, in future will look to locate within Europe and what impact that might have on the UK economy. It’s something that we need to take very seriously.

CM: I wonder about students as well; we recognise that in the UK we sometimes have difficulty getting students to go to Europe and I wonder in a post-Brexit world is that going to become even more difficult for them? Is it going to limit their horizons? And will it limit our own students in terms of international students coming here and sharing different cultures?

SA: I think that’s a good point to move on to issues of social mobility and access and I think Brexit is key to that; we need to think what other opportunities we can offer to our home students, who maybe aren’t as socially mobile as we would like, in a world where Europe might be more difficult to access. How do we give them opportunities to broaden their horizons and be fit and able, globally aware graduates?

MillionPlus: What do you think are the other major issues facing the sector?

SA: The Higher Education and Research Bill is of huge interest to the sector: the opening of the market, the new regulatory framework, the creation of the Office for Students and the separation of teaching and research are all matters we have a very close eye on. Bill Rammell’s publication questioning where the public interest aspect has gone in that new regulatory framework is well founded. Universities are all charitable institutions doing far more than straightforward teaching and learning and knowledge creation. We have a major role in developing our economies and our communities, as place shapers and anchor institutions – how does the HE Bill reflect that? I’m not sure we’ve got that sorted.

CM: There are so many unknowns facing us at the minute. I worry that universities don’t necessarily recognise national boundaries, even within the UK. We’ve got a different system evolving across the UK and there are good parts and bad parts in each one of those, but a lot of what we do is at a national level so anything that happens in one area can impact quite significantly on the others. The Bill will have an impact across the UK, particularly when it comes to research funding. Again, there are an awful lot of challenges and unknowns for us.

SA: Picking up that point, cross-border trade in higher education is significant. The commentary by the Home Secretary on international students is not necessarily welcomed by the sector, it’s not something we can identify with or subscribe to. Education doesn’t have borders or boundaries and we wouldn’t want it to have. Knowledge creation and learning is a global business and any barriers must be a worry for the UK in the future.

CM: One of the very positive things about working in Scotland is that the government values the diversity of the system here and I would be worried that could be threatened by some of the changes occurring. Looking south of the border at England, I think some of the changes could be detrimental to modern universities such as ours. We do a lot of the heavy lifting around social mobility and I think there needs to be greater recognition of that, particularly in terms of funding.

SA: The future of UK Research and Innovation, the new body that will look after the seven research councils, and Innovate UK and the element of HEFCE that was to do with research and knowledge transfer exchange, is something we need to look very carefully at as we move forward. Clearly we would not want to see any of the investment that is currently arriving through those channels to be either cut or sliced or dealt with differently and in modern universities we have a strong history of working with business and of applied research which has an immediate impact on the businesses we serve in our localities. I think for the UK economy to stay productive and competitive that is a significant part of the investment piece that the government needs to keep a strong eye on.

CM: With my institution, I sometimes use the strapline: locally rooted with international reach. [Modern universities] have a huge impact on our local economies; our research is mostly applied and that doesn’t just impact on local economies but on national and international as well. You can see that from the research outputs that the modern universities produce, as well as the added value they provide to students and to the local community and businesses. So, across a wide spectrum of activity, modern universities play a significant role.

See their websites for more on the University of Sunderland or the University of the Highlands and Islands.