Brexit spells opportunity for Singapore's education sector

The United Kingdom's vote to leave the European Union could benefit the education sector in Singapore.

British universities will be looking for international partners, and the strong Singapore private and public higher education sector is perfectly placed to capitalise on British universities' need to join forces.

Since the referendum result on June 24, Britain has been in a state of uncertainty, and higher education has been affected more than most.

Leaving the EU, or Brexit, will put at risk the £850 million (S$1.5 billion) in funding that British universities receive each year from the EU's Horizon 2020 Framework Programme for Research and Innovation. This funding shortfall needs to be filled and universities are looking to international tie-ups to plug the gap.

It is likely that British universities will redouble their efforts to form partnerships, recruit students and academic staff and seek research funding from outside the EU, and Singapore is in a prime position to capitalise on this.

Singapore is already one of Britain's closest partners in the education sector and we will see more tie-ups between British universities and their Singaporean public and private university counterparts over the coming years. This is good news for both Britain and Singapore, where there remains huge demand for British education and where students and academics are world-class.

The other strategy likely to be employed by British universities is to set up EU-based subsidiaries as a way of safeguarding access to EU funding. While this course of action is subject to significant geopolitical risks (such as Britain's terms of exit from the EU and whether the EU agrees to open up funding to subsidiaries of British institutions), it is likely to be popular.

University of Cambridge vice-chancellor Leszek Borysiewicz has said his university will consider setting up science parks elsewhere in the EU. Others are very likely to follow, so while the prospects for Singapore are good, there will be competition from EU countries.

Another Brexit threat to British universities is the drop in the number of EU students going to Britain to study as a result of restrictions on freedom of movement.

There are 125,000 EU students in Britain and a drop in this number will lead to falling revenue for universities, though this may be offset by universities charging EU students higher fees post-Brexit.

British universities currently charge EU students the same as they charge those from Britain, £9,000, while international students typically pay fees of upwards of £15,000.

World leading universities such as the London School of Economics and Imperial College London take in large numbers of EU students and will feel the impact of any changes, as will Scottish universities such as Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrew's, at which EU students can benefit from free undergraduate education in the same way as Scottish students.

Expect British universities to increase their recruitment drive in Singapore and elsewhere in the region to replace this lost revenue. Added to the favourable post-Brexit exchange rate, Britain may be increasingly attractive to Singaporean students. Singapore's higher education institutions are already facing increased competition for students because of liberalisation in the Australian higher education market. Brexit could increase that competitive pressure within Singapore.

Another issue for students travelling to Britain is increasing pressure from the British higher education sector on the British government to review the immigration status of non-EU international students, who are currently included within official migration figures.

Institutions want the government to reintroduce the post-study work visa, to provide these students with additional incentives to study in Britain and allow the national economy to benefit from their expertise once their education is complete. Despite some less than positive noises coming out of the British government on this topic, expect some further change in policy here too.

  • The writer is partner and head of International Education at Pinsent Masons LLP.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 18, 2016, with the headline 'Brexit spells opportunity for Singapore's education sector'. Print Edition | Subscribe