When Canadian academic Stephen Toope takes over running Cambridge University next year, he’ll face an institution grappling with some of the biggest challenges in its 807-year history.
Dr. Toope, who becomes vice-chancellor next October, will have to deal with the impact of Brexit, sweeping changes to Britain’s education system, and tougher government oversight of universities.
The implications of the vote to leave the European Union are being assessed at universities across the country, especially at Cambridge, which has benefited extensively from Britain’s membership in the EU. Some say the impact is already being felt as Cambridge fell to fourth in the latest QS World University rankings, the first time the university has not been in the top three.
While known to most Canadians for its ancient buildings, punting and illustrious roster of 92 Nobel prize winners, Cambridge’s recent success has been in 21st century pursuits of high-technology and cutting-edge science.
“We’re not an English university, but an international university that happens to be located in England,” computer science professor Ross Anderson said. “We have been one of the winners from globalization. So a surge of English nationalism driven by the losers is potentially toxic in all sorts of ways.”
About 1,500 companies are based at the Cambridge Science Park and technology cluster, which continue to expand. The university’s status as a global innovator was confirmed this summer when chip designer Arm Holdings, a Cambridge offshoot, was bought by Japan’s SoftBank Group for $32-billion (U.S.).
The university’s booming tech sector has brought economic benefits to the city as well, making it one of the fastest-growing local economies in the country. The city is growing so quickly it is planning a new rail station and £1-billion ($1.7-billion Canadian) worth of transportation and housing developments.
But Brexit could bring much of that to a halt.
Cambridge gets about £100-million from the EU in research grants and other financing, nearly 10 per cent of the university’s entire funding.
Brexit backers insist the government can make up the shortfall by redirecting money that currently goes to Brussels in fees for membership in the EU. But Britain receives far more in EU research grants than other EU countries do, and making up the difference would stretch the government much farther than it has ever gone in supporting scientific research. Dozens of other competing programs will also require funding once Britain pulls out of the EU.
And Brexit it is not just about money.
Students from Europe will be treated as international students after Brexit, meaning their post-secondary tuition will double. Researchers from the EU will also need visas, and even getting equipment into the country could become difficult.
Brexit “will make our job at Cambridge a lot harder,” said Dr. Anderson, who is also a member of the university’s governing council. “Not only will we lose 10 per cent of our income directly, but there’s the issue of what effect it has on student recruitment from overseas, both from higher fees for EU students and from a general feeling that the U.K. has become a xenophobic ‘little England.’”
Cahir O’Kane, a professor in the department of genetics, said about 31 per cent of the university’s academic researchers come from the EU, not including research students or visiting professors.
“I think that there are core strengths that will still be there regardless of Brexit, but [Brexit] will certainly make things more difficult,” Dr. O’Kane said. “A big challenge will be maintaining the attractiveness of Cambridge to international students and researchers. [Cambridge] does have a responsibility to the U.K., but my view would be that it fulfills that responsibility by being an international university that provides excellence in education, excellence in research for the people in the U.K.”
One way for Cambridge to make up the financial shortfall is through fundraising, something the university has not been good at. Dr. Toope was hired in part because of his fundraising success at the Unviversity of British Columbia, where he was president from 2006 to 2014. “One of the things that we hope to get from Stephen, and learn from him, is to become better at fundraising the way North American universities do it,” said Dr. Anderson.
Complicating matters further are proposed changes to Britain’s educational system, including increased oversight of how universities grant degrees, and requirements for universities to play a role in creating more “grammar schools” – publicly funded schools that select students based on academic ability. Critics say grammar schools benefit wealthy families because they can afford better education and tutoring to help their children pass the entrance exam. To address that concern, the government wants universities to work with underperforming schools or start their own “feeder” primary schools. Cambridge and other universities argue the increased oversight will infringe on academic freedom and that feeder schools would divert already scant resources.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said 19 per cent of researchers come from the European Union. In fact, 31 per cent of the university’s researchers come from the EU. This version has been corrected.Report Typo/Error