Blog – Embracing opportunities: the Russell Group’s view on trade deals

06 May 2021

Russell Group universities have been on the frontline of the pandemic, supporting the NHS through university hospitals and the development of new treatments and a vaccine for Covid-19. British ingenuity, supported by international collaboration, has helped us fight back against the disease. Now, as we look to the economic recovery, trade deals that support cooperation in research and higher education could be a further shot in the arm for British aspirations to be a global science superpower.

Education is a great British success story. ONS and Department for Education data shows that education exports are now the UK’s largest service export. Any new independent trade deals being forged by a truly Global Britain should be making the most of this.

With Australian and New Zealand deals on the horizon, and welcome hints of increased mobility between our likeminded countries, formalised research partnerships would be an added benefit to trade with fellow Five Eye powers - UK, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. New technologies in sensitive fields such as AI, or where dual usage is readily apparent, can more easily be developed with trusted countries where cooperation is at the highest level. As we pivot to the Pacific, looking at ways to bolster collaboration with our allies in the region can shore us all up in an uncertain world. The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership also presents a multitude of opportunities.

Of course, all trade deals are necessarily individual agreements, and what would be appropriate for Canada or Japan will be different for Mexico and India, but all share the same aim of reducing existing barriers to trade and creating mutual prosperity. UK standards must be maintained and levels of alignment may differ, but there are ample opportunities for exciting new agreements that can bolster international science and research collaborations.

It is far easier to agree cooperation now rather than to revisit in the future, so sector consultation ahead of new FTAs could be key to getting these right first time and maximising the returns to the UK economy. 

The closer cooperation with India announced this week has underlined those potential opportunities. The newly announced Young Professionals programme builds on the success of the Government’s post study work visa which has made Britain more attractive for international students – more than 53,000 Indian students enrolled to study in the UK last year, up 42% on the previous year. Future trade deals could further promote British HE while appropriate mutual recognition of professional qualifications would further boost mobility and cooperation.

Recognising the value of student mobility in any future trade deals could also support UK universities in tapping into huge growth markets in India or across Africa and South America. Even during the pandemic, demand for UK HE was high with international student numbers higher than expected. This, and the success of blended online learning for overseas students, has underlined the strength of our world-leading teaching to a global market.

International student fees are already used to support courses for UK students alongside research that benefits the whole country. The students benefit from a gold standard education and often go home as ambassadors for British values and culture, in turn facilitating future engagement and trade. In the best spirit of free trade, it is win-win.

Each FTA will be different. Some may benefit from specific education or research-focussed chapters, for others separate bilateral agreements will be more appropriate. Specifics will differ but we will be judging the success of FTAs by the following four pillars:

1. Supporting education – promoting UK HE abroad, encouraging a diverse pool of international students and facilitating global student exchanges
2. Supporting research – increasing collaboration with friendly countries on key technologies while assisting developing countries in building up their own complementary capacity
3. Increased mobility – making it easier for the highly skilled to study and work in the UK and partner countries while maintaining public confidence in the immigration system
4. Mutual recognition of qualifications – where appropriate having equivalence to support partnerships, business and mobility with judgments made on a sectoral or country basis to maintain UK standards

It is far easier to agree cooperation now rather than to revisit in the future, so sector consultation ahead of new FTAs could be key to getting these right first time and maximising the returns to the UK economy. We stand ready to support the Government as we look to build on our existing international partnerships and create more opportunity at home.

Britain’s world-leading universities are already a key plank of our country’s soft power. With a presence in every region and nation of the UK, the role Russell Group universities can play in linking our towns and cities to the global community is crucial to getting the most out of the exciting trade deals ahead. Our universities are a gateway to the world and should be at the heart of a dynamic Global Britain strategy.

This blog was written by James Hallwood, External Relations Manager for the Russell Group of Universities 

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