Brexit’s impact on higher education: A matter of communication

What can we learn from how the academic community’s concerns about Brexit have been represented in the media?

“Just what we need: another post about Brexit.” Not just another post, no: the AI tech we’re developing at Signal is so sophisticated that it can read minds, and we can reveal what Britain really thinks about the EU for the first time!

We’re kidding, of course, but hopefully that was the hook you needed to keep reading…

This article highlights how the risks and opportunities facing UK universities were presented, both before and after the EU referendum of June 23rd. We also wanted to evaluate how key media messages were received by the people who actually work and study in higher education.

As a proudly research-led technology company, this is an important subject for us. We owe our livelihood to the benefits of a strong academic and research community, so we have a vested interest in amplifying its concerns.

Higher Education in the UK is suffering from post-Brexit anxiety

Britain’s decision to leave the EU means that right now, the exact challenges which might face academics and higher education professionals in the coming months and years are uncertain.

Uncertainty and uneasiness still abounds in many UK industries — a direct consequence of the insecurity of the UK’s present situation. Over a month from the referendum, no-one knows exactly what the fallout will be from Britain’s decision to leave the EU.

On that basis, we have investigated whether the British media are doing enough to report on and to address the concerns of the higher education sector. We hope that our findings may have some effect in outlining the challenges ahead for the community.

Our analysis sought to identify the crossover points between media narrative and informed personal opinion

To get hold of the data needed for our research, Signal analysed media articles from more than 4 million sources, spanning a period of two months: one month before June 23rd, and one month afterwards. We also created a survey of higher education students and professionals, in order to combine Signal’s media coverage with first-hand opinions. We received 39 responses to the survey: 29 from UK-based universities, 8 from EU-based universities and 1 from an international university. The distribution of respondents is as follows: 23 academic staff members, 12 research students, and 4 administrative staff members.

To get to heart of the matter, our survey focused primarily on the financial implications of Brexit for the higher education sector.

So, what did we learn?

1) Universities’ financial fears about Brexit have not been overplayed

Our survey respondents overwhelmingly concluded that staff and students in UK higher education believe that universities would suffer financially as a result of Britain’s decision to leave the EU:

Q. To what extent do you believe that UK universities will suffer financially as a result of Britain’s decision to leave the EU?

Disagree 6% Neutral 6% Agree 88%

N.B: Of the 6% who disagreed, no respondents agreed that UK universities stood to benefit financially from Brexit. On a scale of 1–5, respondents answered 1 or 2 to disagree, 3 to indicate neutrality/ambivalence or 4–5 to indicate agreement.

The average score for all survey participants was 4.2, indicating strong agreement with the suggestion that there would be a negative financial impact. When only UK participants were counted, the average score rose to 4.3.

This was hardly surprising given the current proportion of UK university funding currently drawn from EU sources. It’s logical to attribute the strong sentiment here to an informed understanding of just how much UK higher education relies on EU funds.

2) The media were slow to pick up on universities’ Brexit fears

Looking at a volume chart for the amount of media coverage mentioning university funding in the context of Brexit, we can see that the bulk of stories emerged after the referendum:

Once the media started to give prominence to this story post-referendum, the negativity felt by the higher education community was generally reflected in the coverage. Prior to the referendum, however, we can see both a lack of coverage and a failure to pick up on the downbeat assessment of Brexit from higher education professionals.

3) Representatives from higher education institutions in the UK worry about their continuing ability to hire EU nationals post-Brexit

Our survey participants gave good insight into a wider concern for post-Brexit Britain, namely the UK’s ability to continue to attract and employ talent from the EU:

Disagree 22% Neutral 34% Agree 44%

78% of respondents gave an answer of 3 or more when asked to agree or disagree with the suggestion that UK higher education establishments would be less likely to hire EU nationals post-Brexit.

Those who responded with 4 or above were asked a follow-up question: “To what extent do you believe that this will have a negative impact on the financial position of your organisation?” On the same scale, the mean response was once again an emphatic 4.

4) Proactive communications on target issues are the key to successfully promoting an agenda

The respondents to our survey answered that they strongly believe that research income for UK universities will fall significantly after Britain officially leaves the EU:

Disagree 6% Neutral 16% Agree 75%

On a scale of 1–5, where 5 indicated strong agreement with the statement that research income would fall, the average response came in at a resounding 4.2. This came in combination with a low score for agreement with the notion that the UK government would cover any research funding shortfall to universities as a result of Brexit — 2.04.

The higher education sector clearly feels very strongly that they are on the verge of a cut in research funding as a consequence of Brexit. Unlike their largely belated reaction to general financial concerns from the sector about Brexit, however, the media picked up pretty swiftly on the community’s concerns about this specific issue:

This article reflected the sector’s deep-rooted concerns about how Brexit would impact on research funding . Screenshot from Signal’s media monitoring platform.

Forewarned by Jo Johnson’s, the ex-minister for Universities and Science, pre-referendum speech on how the science and research community would suffer financially should Britain leave the EU, post-referendum sentiment around the issue nosedived pretty quickly after the sector circled the wagons by issuing reassuring statements on 26th June (with Canterbury Christ Church, the University of Cardiff and Southampton among those securing press placement):

The dramatic dip in sentiment on 30th June was caused, almost single-handedly, by The Tab, a largely student-written publication, which ran a series of articles on how much various universities (including Oxford) stood to lose in EU research funding as a potential consequence of Brexit.

Universities are successful with internal communications; less so with external messaging

As we’ve seen, the higher education community harbours serious concerns about the financial implications of Brexit. There’s also evidence to suggest that the media agenda in the run-up to the referendum was not aligned with university representatives in reflecting those concerns — except in the case where a major influencer had an impact on how the media presented a specific issue.

Numbers don’t tell the whole story, of course, which is why we also sought to capture qualitative data through our survey. We asked participants two questions about their organisations’ internal and external communications strategies, and how effective they found them — with some illuminating results:

Q1. To what extent do you believe that universities as a whole have provided clarity to their students and staff as to the potential impact of Brexit?

Answer 3.0

Q2. To what extent do you believe that universities as a whole have succeeded in shaping the narrative about the impact of Brexit on higher education?

Answer 2.6

Mean score (1 = Strongly disagree; 5 = Strongly agree)

There’s a slight disparity between the extent to which our respondents felt that their organisations were effective in orchestrating internal communications versus their ability to broadcast their message to the nation more generally. This is reinforced by their feedback on the second question (free text field):

“…very little news coming from universities about what this means for their students and faculty…”

“I don’t think they managed to get the message across strongly enough, but to be fair I don’t think they stood a chance.”

“Before or after Brexit? I feel universities have been relatively good in shaping the narrative afterwards, not sure about before.”

Forewarned is forearmed: understanding the media landscape in the run-up to a critical event can be a huge advantage

The prospect of leaving the EU has been a profound source of uncertainty for the UK’s higher education sector. Indeed, our surveyed academics and students have raised concerns about the impact of Brexit on the finances of universities, their research income, and their ability to attract talent from the EU.

We have uncovered several interesting patterns relating to press coverage of the sector’s concerns. In particular, we have demonstrated that media coverage of the financial impact of Brexit on higher education was relatively low-volume in the warm-up to the EU referendum, as opposed to the period just after the Brexit vote. This could reflect uncertainty and indecisiveness on how to react to a potential Brexit within the academic field.

Meanwhile, our survey respondents felt that universities were more successful at communicating internally than projecting their strategies and plans to a wider audience. This, in turn, informs us that communications professionals within higher education may need to focus on proactivity and expanding the reach of their activities if they are to impact debates on a national scale in the future.

originally published

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