Make Oxford Great Again: An Elite University in the Era of Protectionism

How can Oxford University maintain its global influence after the Brexit vote?

Excellence without border

In their mission to create and share knowledge (See Chart 1 for the example of Oxford1,2), universities have long relied on international cooperation and funding. UK universities receive £1.2 billion a year from the European Union (EU)3, but also welcome 127,000 EU students4 and maintain a close partnership with the European research community3. Following the Brexit vote, applications from EU students have already dropped by 7%5 in the UK and researchers are being concerned about cross-border collaboration. Oxford, the oldest university of the English-speaking world is also receiving negative signals with researchers being rejected from EU projects due to Brexit-related funding fears6 and student applications droppings7.

The university has, over time, established a strong leadership in both research and academics. It has created value by fostering intellectual excellence and by drawing from global talents. An increasing distance to the EU could mean three things to the university’s value chain. First, the £66 million of European research funding it receives every year8 could be in jeopardy. Second, EU researchers and faculty, who currently make up 17% of its staff9, could be tempted to leave due to unfavorable prospects. Third, European students may not favor UK universities due to visa and employment concerns. If Oxford were to lose its capacity to attract the best and brightest, the special place it has in the academic world could be in peril.

Chart 1 – Oxford’s Value Chain1


Dominus Illuminatio Mea10

Oxford quickly reacted to the vote by creating a communication channel to keep the community informed and reassured. The message was two-fold: there are no immediate consequences to students and faculty, and the funding received via the Horizon 2020 project (biggest Research and Innovation project in the history of the EU) is, for now, not affected by Brexit11. The university then crafted a short-term strategy to anticipate the consequences of the vote on the three pillars of its value chain.

  1. Research funding

In order to maintain a sufficient level of funding, Oxford joined other educational institutions to pressure the government to take actions such as making the UK an associate country of the EU research space12. The university obtained some guarantees from the UK Treasury to match EU funding wherever this funding is discontinued, for at least some period of time13.

  1. International students

Forecasting a drop in applications from European students, the university decided to refocus on non-EU international students (in particular Americans and Canadians)14. Those students used to be at a disadvantage with higher tuitions and more complex administrative processes. Oxford is hopeful that there is untapped potential outside of Europe.

  1. Faculty and researchers

Oxford’s priority is to ensure that its staff is confident it has a place in the UK. The Vice-Chancellor strengthened the importance of diversity and external contribution. Migration lawyers and pension experts were appointed to address possible concerns15.

Establishing a medium-term strategy depends on the outcome of the UK-EU negotiation. Preparing for the worst, Oxford has been considering opening a campus in France16. Beside solving the funding and staffing issues, this move could also be symbolic: Education and Innovation transcend borders, regardless of the political situation17.



I believe that two types of actions could be put in place to mitigate the risks of Brexit and possible future political events. On the one hand, the university should take actions to maintain its international aura. Those could include:

  • New appeal: Create new levers to attract European students that would make up for the current concerns. Oxford could, for example, become a beacon for Europe’s entrepreneurship scene which is perceived as lagging behind America’s.
  • Focus: Increase expertise in some key research sectors making the school an unavoidable partner. Researchers and projects would apply for Oxford rather that the other way around.

On the other hand, domestic-centered projects could be carried out to make the institution more independent. For example:

  • Diversification: Develop industrial partnerships to obtain private research funding, reducing the reliance on public programs.
  • New talent approach: Attract a higher proportion of low income, high-achieving students. Studies found that this population is largely untapped18.


Open questions

The dilemma Oxford currently faces reflects the (remediable) failure of our society to adapt to a changing world. If the academic elite is so convinced of the benefits of international cooperation, why is more than half of the UK population tempted by isolationism?

Also, research funding comes from taxpayer money of specific countries. However, research findings are universal. How can academic institutions reconcile those two aspects?


(746 words)


1: Chart prepared by the author. Oxford logo from official website: (Nov. 2017)

2: Michael Pickford, “University Inputs, Outputs and Educational Technology”, British Journal of Educational Technology, May 1975, Vol.6(2), pp.61-70 [Peer Reviewed Journal]

3: David Matthews, “Brexit: growing numbers of UK academics face EU funding worries”, Times Higher Education, accessed on November 2017, published June 2016

4: Universities UK, “Higher education in numbers”, accessed on November 2017

5: Rachael Pells, “Number of EU students applying for UK universities falls by 7% since Brexit, latest figures reveal”, The Independent, accessed on November 2017, published February 2017

6: Ian Sample, “UK scientists dropped from EU projects because of post-Brexit funding fears”, The Guardian, accessed on November 2017, published July 2016

7: Sally Weale, “UK university applications from EU down by 9%, says Ucas”, The Guardian, accessed on November 2017, published October 2016

8: Oxford University, “Oxford and the EU”, accessed on November 2017

9: Joe Watts, “Brexit is risking student numbers and vital research funding, says head of Oxford University after school is named world’s best”, The Independent, accessed on November 2017, published September 2016

10: “The Lord is my Light” – Oxford University’s Motto

11: European Commission, “What is Horizon 2020”, accessed on November 2017

12: Times Higher Education, “Allow ‘no leeway’ on UK staying in EU research, says Oxford chief”, accessed on November 2017, published April 2017

13: Oxford University, “Horizon 2020 funding”, accessed on November 2017, published June 2017

14: Harry Yorke, “Brexit will be good for universities, Oxford’s new Head of Brexit strategy says”, The Telegraph, accessed on November 2017, published January 2017

15: Europeaeum, “Oxford University prepares for Brexit impact”, accessed on November 2017

16: Harry Cockburn, “Oxford University considering French campus amid research funding concerns after Brexit”, The Independent, accessed on November 2017, published February 2017

17: Harry Yorke, “Exclusive: Oxford University may break with 700 years of tradition and open a foreign campus – after France offers Brexit sweetener”, The Telegraph, accessed on November 2017, published February 2017

18: Caroline M. Hoxby et al., “The Missing ‘One-Offs’: The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low Income Students”, National Bureau of Economic Research Paper No. 18586 Issued in December 2012

19: Title photo: Official photo of the Oxford campus, – accessed on November 2017


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Student comments on Make Oxford Great Again: An Elite University in the Era of Protectionism

  1. Great post! Your first question, if the academic elite is so convinced of the benefits of international cooperation, why is more than half of the UK population tempted by isolationism, is surely the big question of the last two years. The first thing I would say is that referenda are not a great way to make complex decisions [1]. Indeed, the treaty of Lisbon which gave EU states the right to leave the EU in the first place was at first held up by a no vote in a referendum on the issue held in Ireland. It was clear after this referendum that the public were not well informed of the issues. Extremist views had grabbed the headlines and clogged the airwaves with confusing, baseless rhetoric. So, Ireland went to the polls again and the referendum was passed [2]. Neither of these referenda represent a good democratic process. Even wilder untruths were spread during the Brexit campaign. In the UK, even the Telegraph, which supported the vote leave campaign, has fact checked the claims that were most influential in the Brexit vote and have found that many were false [3]. Perhaps Oxford University has a responsibility to connect with the public and try to bridge the divide between academic elites and the public. Public opinion will still be one determining factor in what kind of Brexit deal will be struck.


    1. Excellent point on why a referendum (one of the most vibrant symbols of democracy) can, in some situations, be undemocratic.
      France had a similar vote a some years ago and few people understood the consequences of their vote.

  2. It is sad to think that isolationism can infect the academic sphere. If Oxford, one of the world’s pre-eminent academic institutions, cannot attract the best and brightest minds irrespective of borders, I fear isolationist points of view will persist. Future leaders will not engage in healthy debate in the same classroom and this lack of exposure to diverse global perspectives will perpetuate entrenched beliefs. I can see many parallels to trends in the United States in the Trump administration. Protectionist policies have made it increasingly difficult for international talent obtain visas to work in the United States. As a result, U.S. academic institutions and companies who depend on these skilled individuals suffer.

    1. I agree that there is a scary side to isolationism. However, as an optimist, I also think that people and societies do learn lessons. One of the strengths of a democratic country like the United States is that there are multiple political parties that can succeed each other. They all make mistakes and all those mistakes can and will be corrected.

  3. Thank you for a great post!
    I think that in general, the problem is not only the UK and Brexit. In the States, for example, Trump’s decisions and announcements regarding stricter visas policy have a negative influence as well. You brought a excellent question – I believe that it does reflect the failure of our society to adapt to a changing world. Further, if the UK’s and other big western countries’ populations won’t promote international cooperation – who will?

    1. I totally agree that western countries should lead by example. I also think that people who have been privileged to receive higher education (especially in elite institutions like Oxford or HBS) should make stronger efforts to understand where the less fortunate parts of the population stands and why their opinion can sometimes conflict with theirs. The last thing we want is to make our societies even more divided.

  4. Great article, Francois! Brexit will definitely be a headache for major educational institutions. They are bound to face the same consequences we are currently seeing in the medical field. In fact, Brexit has exacerbated labor shortages for the National Health Service: nurses’ vacancies stood at 40,000 before Brexit, but EU nurses’ practice registration has declined by 90%, in addition to 10,000 EU nurses that are believed to have quite following the referendum ( These numbers are staggering and will only contribute to a lower quality of life and care in the U.K. When compounding this issue with the education problem you bring up, the U.K. may very well be staring at a generational crisis in 20 years!

    1. Very interesting parallel with healthcare! It will take us some time to understand the overall consequences of the vote on all aspects of the economy.

  5. Francois has done a great job in outlining its main suggestions for Oxford: 1. Become the top school in a specific area to attract students worldwide, 2. Become pioneer in some key R&D sectors to attract researchers, 3. Partner with private institution for funding, 4. Reach untapped students’ populations. However, I think that Oxford could further increase its efforts to maintain its worldwide competitive edge. First of all, Oxford should further leverage its brand and expand its global reach by embracing technology and digitizing its teaching content. The university needs to create breakthrough online learning experiences to engage students across the world, and provide the opportunity to earn a degree or diploma while studying at distance. On another hand, Oxford could also build on its brand by creating subsidiaries worldwide, especially in emerging countries. Indeed, in countries where the middle class is growing and investing more and more in education, Oxford could position itself as providing the “best in class education” and attract an important cohort of students. For example, the British International School opened a couple of years ago in Casablanca with immense success. Parents are willing to pay high fees to enroll their children in the best schools. Building on this last point, Oxford could also create global programs such as the INSEAD MBA which takes place in both Fontainebleau and Singapore. This would enable Oxford to attract researchers, funds, as well as students by providing a global experience. Finally, Oxford could also mitigate the risk of Brexit by building partnerships and exchanges programs with other universities to preserve its worldwide notoriety.

    1. Great ideas Bahia! I think you raise a very important point with brand awareness. Those big names (Oxford, Harvard…) are real brands and should be taken care of and marketed as such.

  6. Great article Francois! A key point you raised regarded how the academic elite can believe so strongly in the benefits of international cooperation when the majority of the UK population voted in favor of “Brexit.” Taking a closer look at the election demographics suggests that ironically an education gap could play a large factor in the explanation. According to Andrew McGill of the Atlantic, “People in areas where many residents have college degrees were far more likely to vote “Remain,” particularly in central London, where more than two-thirds of the city population has a bachelor’s degree” [1.] In addition, given the underlying tensions of xenophobia in the “leave” camp, this statistic would seem to indicate that higher population of the academic elite do indeed believe in the benefits of international influence. However, this conclusion leads to yet another concerning question: how do you diffuse the benefits of internationalism beyond academic circles? The unfortunate reality is it may take the full weight of “Brexit” repercussions for “leave” voters to recognize the impact of isolationism.

    [1] McGill, Andrew. “Who Voted for Brexit?” The Atlantic, 25 June 2016,

    1. Great point. If people are not exposed to higher education or simply do not believe in it, then they logically would not care about its excellence.
      As for your last point, I think that however the Brexit negotiation unfolds, it will be an interesting lesson for the world.

  7. This is a great post, Francois, and one that unfortunately hits close to home as a recent article by the Financial Times ( ) showed that U.S business schools have now seen a drop in MBA applications from overseas students. The article mentions that only 32% of US business schools reported an increase in international candidates for their masters programs in 2017, down from 49% in 2016. A big part of the blame is on Donald Trump, whom we can say more than half of this nation’s electoral votes went to. An important factor that you didn’t mention in your suggestions for mitigating the impact of isolationist policies on declining university application rates is making the work immigration visa process easier for international students. A lot of students go to a country to study in hopes of staying after graduation but the current immigration policies, at least here in the U.S., are not very favorable. As an international student who attended both college and now graduate school in the U.S., I have encountered so many barriers in the visa application process for staying in the U.S. after graduation. I was lucky enough to get a lottery for the H1-B visa, the first step in obtaining permanent residency status, but several of my fellow international college friends had to physically leave the country. Even now, with summer internship searches, there are so few opportunities for international students outside of traditional consulting and banking. I believe the greatest cause to the decline in applications following the rise of protectionist movements in the U.K and the U.S. stems from concerns about employment visa sponsorship post-graduation. The most effective way to solve this problem would be for institutions of higher learning to work with the government and create a new class of work visas that allow qualified international students an easier path to gaining permanent residency status. Without some sort of assurance of an equal chance at landing a target job as other students post graduation, international students have little incentive to apply to universities in countries that have isolationist policies.

  8. Francois, you outlined the context very well – your essay is informative and opened the aperture on the effects of isolationism to shed some light on a subject that is very personal to all of us (as we are MBA students). I particularly liked your point on attracting students from the US and Canada – as I was applying to MBA programs, I frankly never considered the UK and now reading your piece, maybe I should have – perhaps we aren’t in their marketing considerations? The downside is what incentive does Oxford offer and American that, say, was capable of going to HBS. They now have to deal with the same foreign entry / visa issues that international students attending HBS have to hurdle. Your point on offering a specialization, for example, in entrepreneurship I think will help them to that end. Another consideration not mentioned to raise the appeal to US and Canadian students is to attract high profile US/Can faculty members to raise awareness and build that side of the Oxford brand.

  9. Great article on Oxford in a period of isolationism. I believe one of the solutions could be a shift to more online education that leverages the strong brand of Oxford. This step would be similar to what many institutions have done here in the US through Coursera, edX, and 2U to provide their content and insight via internet classes with specific degree programs. Leveraging their brand could grow their influence and further strengthen the brand of the university. In fact, 2U just announced plans to launch its first international graduate program in 2019 (1).


  10. Francois, this was a fantastic article on a very important topic. Throughout the 20th century, we saw the damaging effects of isolationism in the form of the two World Wars and, in response, saw how the United Nations and other multi-national organizations were set up to ensure this never happened again. It is troubling to see the UK and the US among others sliding back into this dangerous territory of isolationism and the unintended negative impacts it can have as we see at Oxford. Based on this history, it makes me wonder what duty Oxford as an academic institution has to teach its students this history and ensure that history does not repeat itself? I recognize that Oxford likely teaches some of its students (perhaps History majors?) this background, but could it ensure that all of its students learn this history regardless of their concentration? Could Oxford help educate even those outside its university by offering digital courses as HBX does or by hosting historical lectures open to the public? Perhaps if US and UK citizens were more aware of lessons in history, they could make better-informed voting decisions and ensure that we do not have to relearn these painful lessons.

  11. Very informative! Thank you for the article.
    Oxford is one of the oldest universities in the world and they have existed through multiple generations and long before the concept of EU existed. I do think that this is nothing but a blip in its illustrious history of Oxford. The funding will come from institutions, alumni and/or companies, in my opinion.
    I think isolationism comes from socio-economic divide in the society. While academia and professionals might advocate globalization, people without jobs and those who feel that they were marginalized because of people in other countries will definitely vote for isolationism. It becomes especially easy when “leaders” give somebody or something to blame for their circumstance (however, true or not it might be).

  12. Monsieur Manil,
    You pose a very relevant question in light of UK’s secession from the EU and highlight a possibly a much less diverse and prosperous future for Oxford University. Academia, a filed that is highly funded by grants, fellowships and donations, is heavily reliant on external sources of funding in order to continue producing groundbreaking research and remain competitive in the academic arena.

    My thoughts currently are that while some Europeans will be deterred to go, Oxford will simply start to attract more non-EU students, particularly from Asia. I think Oxford’s reputation is still one of the greatest in the world, and this will not deter non-EU students from coming to the University.

    On the question of funding, this one may be more difficult. If BREXIT does indeed lead to tougher economic realities within the UK, academic research may be one of the first things to be underfunded. I think EU-UK relations will be key for the future of Oxford and its growth and relevance on the world stage. You also alluded to this in your research, but Oxford could use this as an opportunity to reinvent itself as a more relevant and modern university, focusing more on business, growth and entrepreneurship as opposed to some of the more traditional fields of academia it is known for. I do also think that companies within the UK will be interest to develop new partnerships with the university as they have a symbiotic relationship with academic institutions that provide research and innovative ideas.

    I think your article also brings about a broader concern for Brexit and attracting talent. One of the most important benefits to members of less economically developed EU states was the ability to move to Western Europe and share their knowledge and have more opportunity than they might have had in their own country. (Poland, Croatia, Romania) etc. The same is true of the US, which has used its ability to issue H1-B visas to attract some of the greatest scientists, engineers and inventors from around the world (India, former USSR, China) The implications of this are too real, and Oxford, as well as the whole UK needs to resolve this issue before the talent it was attracting finds other routes and forms a new trend of moving to other nations (USA, Canada, Germany)

  13. Francois,
    I really liked this article because it tells a very different narrative than is often heard on the news surrounding the Brexit decision. Surrounded by the buzz of the political and economic effects of Britain’s decision it is interesting to hear about other second and third order effects like education. Do you think there will really less interest in Oxford because of its exit from the EU or do you think it’s name recognition will carry it through? If Oxford goes with exporting a campus to an EU country like France do you think that satellite campus will be able to attract the same level of talent that the original campus attracts? I would argue a huge part of the Oxford appeal is the network and name recognition that is attached to attendance there so I am not sure a satellite campus would have the same draw. If Harvard Business School had a satellite campus in France would it attract the same mix of people?
    I do really like you suggestion that Oxford should innovate itself to become an entrepreneurial capital to compete with schools in the United States. Stanford has established themselves as a leader in that space and the other “big name” business schools are playing catch-up. If Oxford can be a first mover in European entrepreneurship and create attractive partnerships between its business, engineering and computer science programs it can continue the timeless appeal it has had for so many years despite all the challenges that have resulted from the Brexit decision.

  14. Thanks for this very interesting article. You brought up a very important point that every industry, including education, is affected by isolationism. Isolationism is a result of an incomplete understanding of how economy & markets work. I think Brexit was a knee-jerk reaction to slowing growth internally by blaming external factors. I believe that it is upon institutions such as Oxford to go against these undercurrents and position themselves as institutions which support international cooperation. I really like the idea which you have presented about opening a campus in France. When a coveted institute such as Oxford shows that they believe that they support international cooperation at all costs, it would send a strong signal to the government as well as to the common people of UK and spark a debate about the long-term ill-effects of isolationism.

  15. Thank you very much for this article- it was a very interesting topic. I do think a tailwind that could be beneficial to this university is if isolationism trends continue in the U.S. While I don’t know the statistics, I would imagine that competition between Oxford and top universities in the U.S. is high. Should students who are not U.S. citizens see less value in obtaining higher education in the U.S. as job availability decreases for international students here, I wonder whether demand for top tier universities such as Oxford outside of the U.S. will increase. While students here in the U.S. won’t suffer from isolationist trends directly, after school companies are increasingly asking for Visa information and citizenship detail prior along with application submission. So, while applications may be down 7% from students within Europe or Britain, that may change over time if legislation changes in the U.S.

  16. Francois, this is great perspective!

    I think people often think and talk about protectionism in terms of physical goods but I agree there’s a huge impact on intellectual capital! I think it’s quite smart for Oxford to be reaching out to other foreign students, at the same time they will face a challenge of making sure there’s availability of work visas for students after graduation. In the past with EU students, this was a non-issue as they already had the right to work in the UK but if they’re now targeting more Americans and Canadians prospective students that won’t be the case! This will be critical for foreign students that think about Oxford as an entryway to a career in the UK. [1]

    [1] Scheve, Kenneth F., and Matthew J. Slaughter. 2001. “Labor Market Competition And Individual Preferences Over Immigration Policy”. Review Of Economics And Statistics 83 (1): 133-145. doi:10.1162/003465301750160108.

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