Credit Mobility in UK Higher Education post-Brexit

Odhran Fox, Ulster University

Credit mobility has changed in a UK context. A critical discourse analysis of the Hansard database explored the political debate and decision-making that resulted in the UK government’s decision to withdraw from the Erasmus plus scheme, instead opting to introduce its own domestic funding programme, the Turing Scheme. This work charted debates from the initial period of consternation and uncertainty of the post-Brexit moment until after the UK’s final withdrawal from the EU and the end of the Brexit transition period. This initial phase of post-Brexit uncertainty manifested in many forms, for example regarding migrant populations who already reside in the UK and the rights of these populations to continue to stay and work in the UK. In the UK these debates noted the large population of Higher Education staff that are EU nationals, in 2015 this was 43,000, this evidenced the transnational nature of higher education and its workforce, and political recognition of this. Looking beyond long-term mobility and migration, Brexit also presented the UK government with uncertainty for the UK student population’s credit mobilities. The population of mobile students from the UK is relatively small, yet the opportunity for credit-mobility was still voiced in the Houses of Parliament as important to these populations for multiple reasons. These included the development of employability skills, socio-cultural capital accrual, soft skills and personal development, and the more traditional view that these sojourns improve foreign language skills. Therefore, the short term mobilities of these student populations was a debated feature, given that a great deal of study abroad had been enabled through the Erasmus+ scheme, currently facilitated and funded by the EU. However, this scheme was tied up with geopolitical underpinnings and goals of European integration and creating a generation of young Europeans, termed the Erasmus generation. However, despite this apparent reluctance to continue participation in the Erasmus+ programme, the importance of international credit-mobility for UK student populations was mooted, and eventually proven with the introduction of the Turing Scheme solely for UK domiciled students. The period of post-Brexit debate surrounding international student mobility (ISM) was long, complex, and uncertain, with many opposing views and multiple considerations of uncertainty, ideology, timings, economics, power, and students. This move towards domestic programmes was not generally favoured across parliament, rather a complex and contested decision, despite limited debate on the matter.

 Due to the highly contentious and complex nature of the continuation of the Erasmus scheme, and the wider ideological and geopolitical underpinnings associated with the scheme, and credit-mobility more broadly, it also becomes important to evaluate the impact of these assumptions on student populations and their mobility flows.  I am now exploring the impact of this political uncertainty of credit bearing schemes on the ISM population, and those who support them, identified through the prior analysis mentioned above. This will grant insight into how these ‘big picture’ (geo)political decisions trickle down to UK students, and impact their opportunities, and the institutional global mobility teams which help to facilitate student populations in their attempts to become mobile. This stage uses semi-structured interviews with students who are participating in study mobility this year, or those who have done so in the past, to find out how they feel study abroad is a formative experience, a point presented through analysis of UK political debate. This helps us to evaluate the connection, or disconnect, between these previous findings, government rationales and policy, and the actual impact of these on this population. Then, using interviews with global mobility staff, recognised as key informants for this research, we will evaluate the Turing Scheme itself, and how the move from Erasmus to Turing was navigated by institutions and their designated staff.

This project, when all stages are complete, should generate a well-rounded and multi-scaler picture of the changes facing ISM in the UK, and identify changes in the geopolitical goals of the UK and how this may impact future student mobility flows. This is important to consider for multiple reasons. The restructuring of Britain’s global relationships and focus of a ‘Global Britain’ impacts mobile student populations through encouraging more global destinations and modifying the flows of this small mobile population of students away from Europe to other foci destinations such as the USA or Australia, impacting the length of sojourns and reconfiguring the actual demographics of this young mobile population, which may be linked to political goals of levelling up and widening access. Finally, this may also have impact on inbound international students at destination countries, potentially modifying the demographics of inbound student populations if UK students’ mobility flows are largely impacted by the funding and visa changes brought about through Brexit negotiations and debate. This second phase of this wider project is still in early stages with recruitment of both students and key staff still ongoing. Therefore, I will mention that we are still in search of participants for the study, so I would like to take this opportunity to reach out to any of our readers or followers who would be suitable for these interviews, or share this study with their students and colleagues, as it would be amazing to get more people involved in this very important and timely research.  

About me

My name is Odhran, and I am a Human Geography PhD student at Ulster University in Northern Ireland. I am also the postgraduate representative for the Population Geography Research Group with the RGS-IBG. This role involves working with the wider committee and other research groups to help ensure that the activities of the group cater to the needs of postgraduates and early career researcher members, an apt role as I am currently in the second year of my PhD and experiencing this early navigation of academia.

About my project

My PhD project focuses on post-Brexit student mobility for UK-domiciled students, assessing potential linkages between international student mobility flows, identity, geopolitics, and funding mechanisms, and how these are in-flux as a result of Brexit.

Throughout my undergraduate study of Geography at Ulster University, I became increasingly interested in the internationalisation of the HE sector and international student mobility. Through my learning and additional reading then, I noted how a lot of work focused on ‘degree mobility’, with less on short-term ‘credit mobility’. Therefore, given the rapid and large-scale changes facing credit-mobility for UK Higher Education, I elected to focus my PhD project on this to provide a timely analysis of these processes of change, the rationale behind this and the impact of these changes on students in the UK who are becoming mobile for a short period of around one to two semesters to study in another country through ISM known as credit-mobility. This is a relatively small population of UK students are the focus of limited research yet were a population at the centre of numerous debates during the Brexit negotiation period and a source of some political contestation, therefore their direction, demographics, and mobility flows are important to study for multiple reasons.