On the face of it, Britain’s business schools are at the raw end of Brexit. One of their big draws is the idea that they are a stepping stone to one of the multinationals based in the UK or financial services firms that are based in London, Europe’s capital of finance. Brexit is a threat to these industries and EU students’ right to stay in the UK after graduating.
The scrapping of the post-study work visa in 2012 means that international students have to leave the country after graduation. Brexit could put EU students in this category and make UK business schools less attractive as a result. This would be bad for business schools, which benefit from the cosmopolitan environment they create, but also the UK economy.
British degree programmes make a significant economic contribution, with business and management attracting the largest proportion of international students, many of whom are from EU countries. Meanwhile, about 13% of academic business school staff are EU nationals and business schools are increasingly dependent on European funding. In fact, while UK government funding has been declining in recent years, EU funding has been on the rise (and was up 166% between 2010 and 2014).
But all the thorns of Brexit are an opportunity to demonstrate the strengths of the British business school. Brexit is the grand challenge of the coming decade for the UK and, with the economy forecast to stutter, business schools must put their high teaching and research rankings to practical use.
Stepping into the void
The argument of Brexit campaigners was always that the UK would have many more opportunities to control its own destiny and for economic growth when it was freed from the costs and limitations of the EU. But many that campaigned to leave the EU have since admitted to having no post-Brexit plan. Uncertainty dominates and the pound has dropped, which has serious knock-on effects for UK businesses and affordability.
So business schools must step into this vacuum with an injection of ideas, confidence and a toolkit of skills to operate and flourish in this new world of challenges. They must now step up and show they are able to take a lead.
They can do this by playing a more active role at a grassroots level of business. Schools should get more involved with the government’s Local Enterprise Partnerships, which support businesses and growth in new sectors across the country. The Small Business Charter, which connects business schools with small and medium enterprises, is a good start.
This way schools can develop deeper partnerships with the businesses that are directly affected by Brexit. Their challenges could range from how they are adapting to a weaker pound and how this will affect imports to opening new global markets outside the EU.
Business schools along with their international staff and networks are well placed to market themselves overseas and bring in foreign direct investment. Plus, whenever there is major change for society – and the extent of change as a result of Brexit isn’t yet understood – there will be opportunities for entrepreneurs. Business schools need to be providing ways to support and nurture the ideas that will solve new problems, as well as challenge accepted norms that everything will be work out rather than leading on the way through these uncertain times.
There are still question marks over the role of business schools – particularly those in the US – in encouraging the attitudes and culture of excessive risk-taking and their inability to admit the failures and problems that led to the global economic crash of 2008. There are also question marks over the way that business education has failed to address core issues like ethics, responsibility and sustainability. Many sell the merits of a globally connected world, but often fail to understand or embrace the complexities of globalisation.
Now’s the time for schools to tailor their offerings and look beyond Europe: how to create and establish new markets and how to accelerate an organisation’s ability to deal with the next generation of high-growth countries like Turkey, Iran, Indonesia, Kazakhstan to name but a few.
In some ways Brexit means a blank sheet of paper for the UK. For some this might be a frightening prospect, but ultimately it just means it’s time for some hard work, determination, creativity, and to make sure the UK looks to its strengths. If there’s one British sector with world-class status and the muscle to make a difference it should be higher education.