A number of British universities fared rather poorly in the most recent QS rankings, at least in comparison with previous years. And this matters: while most academics have our criticisms of the ways in which QS and other bodies draw up their league tables, we equally know that it pays to do well in them.
So the declining ranking of several UK universities is serious. And the finger of blame has moved quickly to point at Brexit as the main contributory cause. After all, at a time of largely buoyant funding for the sector and a general round of self-congratulation over our performance in the Research Excellence exercise and the National Student Survey, what else could be responsible?
Koen Lambert, Vice Chancellor of the University of York, laid the blame squarely on Brexit. According to the local newpaper, Professor Lambert (or a press officer writing in his name) said that:
York, along with many other British universities, appears to have fallen in the QS league table because of concerns about the impact of Brexit; specifically, this has been attributed to worries about future access to research funding and whether we will be able to recruit excellent academic staff and students from all over the world.
Journalists were rather more circumspect than Professor Lambert seems to have been. Writing in the Independent, Aftab Ali blamed “Post-Brexit uncertainty and long-term funding issues” for the decline. Later in the same article, he pointed out that the QS rankings were based on data collected well before the 23 June referendum.
Sally Weale, education correspondent for the Guardian, didn’t actually suggest any connection between Brexit and the league table fall, but emphasised that the QS results came out at a time of concern over the fall-out from Brexit.Similarly the Standard, though its headline was unambiguous.
So blaming Brexit is a lame excuse. It isn’t just a matter of QS collecting its data before the referendum. Key data, such as citations per staff member, are based on activities that stretch back for years. So Brexit didn’t cause the decline in QS rankings, any more than it made England’s footballers so inept (though at least the England-Iceland game came after 23 June), or turned Team GB’s athletes into world-beaters. So on the whole, I think Prof Lambert is having a laugh.
Brexit is certain to have an influence on UK higher education but what it is has yet to be seen. For explanations of our universities’ poor performance in the QS rankings, we should look changes within the higher education sector (including a large-scale and long-term shift of resources into administration), as well as the UK’s failure to match more successful countries’ levels of investment.
Meanwhile, I expect to see a rash of claims that Brexit cause this failure or that success, depending on the claimant’s point of view. Over time, hopefully we will stop supporting these claims based on our own opinions of Brexit, and start judging each one on the basis of evidence and logic.