Post-Brexit and post-Covid-19 it is hard to think of a better strategic investment than billions of pounds flowing into new research, teaching and international expansion. Partnership between philanthropy, the private sector, and our world-class Universities, is the way to achieve it, argues Brian Sturgess

In the British education sector, the post-Brexit world is generally viewed with a mixture of fear and opportunity. The fear is often focused on the consequences for EU funding and cooperation from 2021: the Erasmus exchange scheme and the Horizon research funding streams are just a few of many examples of European programmes that may be more difficult, or even impossible, for UK institutions to access after December 2020.

The opportunity for the education sector is similar to that for the broader economy: spreading its wings to focus on serving the wider world. Education in the United Kingdom is already a large and successful export revenue earner and is an important segment of the country's much-vaunted service economy. In 2016, the year of the referendum, the most recent government data released, revealed that the education sector generated £19.9 billion in export earnings. Europe, is of course, and will remain an important market, although EU students pay only the same fees as domestic, but much of the sector's success in recent years has been down to growth and expansion in Asia, the Middle East and other high-growth regions such as large parts of emerging Africa. In many countries, owing to Commonwealth ties, a British education has an added linguistic comparative advantage teaching in the world's leading business language.

The post-Brexit potential for the UK's education sector to expand is extremely large and must be seized by a proactive policy by the government and the education institutions themselves. Government data showed that export revenue from international students and English language training overseas had already grown by 26 per cent between 2010 and 2016. Higher education institutions accounted for nearly 70 per cent of total education export earnings. Doubling-down on this global approach must surely now be a priority to ensure that a Brexit dividend, rather than Brexit disruption, is awaiting our universities in the years to come. To help enable the opportunity the UK government launched an International Education Strategy in March 2019 with the intention of linking the sector into the trade and diplomatic policies of the Department for International Trade and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The heart of the strategy is to raise education exports to £35 billion and to host 600,000 international students per year by 2030.

But a government can only do so much in providing an enabling environment. The full export potential of education in the UK will only be realized by engaging the private sector. Improving the sector's access to, and engagement with, private financing and philanthropy is key. Too often the availability of EU, or other state-funded educational programmes, have meant that many European (including British) higher education institutions have felt little desire to seek private financing. This is a serious mistake, and other countries have shown the way forward in attracting private finance into higher education across disciplines. But there is good news.  The stellar global reputation of UK schools, universities, and research institutions, and the unprecedented opportunity provided post-Brexit, means there is still time to catch up – and many of private or philanthropic bodies around the world will be keen to find new UK partnerships.

The United States, obviously, leads the way on philanthropic contributions to, and private partnerships, in the education space. But many other, smaller countries, are now innovating and showing the way forward. In Georgia, an ambitious new project, the Kutaisi International University (KIU), aims to create a centre of excellence in the South Caucasus region offering a variety of disciplines tht will help develop Georgia's human capital and development, and highlighting  Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects and on Business Management including courses in Economics. The aim of KIU is to create high-skilled, high-paying careers for the next and future generations of Georgians and to boost the country's productivity and economic performance.

The University is entirely funded by the Cartu Foundation, a philanthropic enterprise set up by the Georgian businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili (also a former Prime Minister of the country) to invest in projects to advance Georgian economic and cultural life. The foundation, which at more than twenty years, is the oldest in Georgia, has already given over US$3 billion funding charitable causes across many spheres of life including culture, sports, science and education. The Cartu Foundation has restored hundreds of historic churches, theatres and other cultural heritage sites, building new cultural and educational infrastructure across Georgia and among those has recently started an environmental project to restore 700 hectares of forest on Mount Mtatsminda overlooking Georgia's capital Tbilisi. Moreover, the Cartu Foundation contributed to the development of Rugby in Georgia throughout years by building rugby infrastructure and implementing various projects.

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The Foundation has now focused its efforts on creating the first world-class university in the South Caucasus region. Almost one billion pounds has been committed by the Cartu Foundation to build the new University campus, to develop teaching and research programmes, and to build international partnerships. KIU has stated it is open to partnerships with leading world educational and research Institutions. The Technical University of Munich (TUM) has stolen a march by securing the first European partnership agreement. The choice of TUM was partly motivated by the desire to support entrepreneurship by higher education, and further help development of local economy. Surely the UK's leading Universities are perfectly positioned to offer advice and guidance on how to build a world-class institution and to attract international students. The opportunity is waiting to be grasped.

In addition to the potential for educational partnerships, the development of KIU in Georgia highlights the benefits – and in many ways, partially-untapped potential – of private and philanthropic financing. Georgia is an interesting and institutionally innovative country which unlike many other parts of the former Soviet Union, rapidly embarked on a pro-business anti-corruption drive to expand its economy. These efforts have been successful in transforming the country into a haven for entrepreneurship. In the 2020, World Bank Doing Business Survey, Georgia was ranked in 7th place globally ahead of the United Kingdom and Germany and just behind the United States in 6th place. The Doing Business annual survey, now in its 17th year monitors regulations across 190 countries worldwide.

The vision of the Cartu Foundation and of Bidzina Ivanishvili, to fund a series of strategic educational, cultural and research projects to improve the opportunities for the next generations of Georgians, should be applauded and will benefit millions of his countrymen and women. The model can, though, be replicated elsewhere. KIU is but one example. There are hundreds of educational institutions in the fast-growing countries of Asia, eastern Europe and the Middle East who could benefit from improved partnerships with outward-looking UK higher educational institutions that have expertise and experience of building STEM courses and management disciplines to attract international funding, students and visiting academics to Faculties.

The UK has a fair share of billionaire and millionaire philanthropists too who could be willing to partner with higher education establishments along the lines of the model promoted by KIU. There are already a small number of examples of successful engagement between universities with the private sector and with philanthropists. The University of Buckingham, where I teach in the Economics and International Studies Department and in the Business School, is a non-profit private institution, is the oldest of the country's private universities and receives no funding from the state. Last year it attracted international students from over 100 countries across the world and, although relatively small, punches above its weight in teaching standards and in generating export income for the country.

Buckingham was founded as the University College of Buckingham (UCB) in 1973 and was closely linked to Margaret Thatcher who was Education Secretary at the time. It was granted university status by royal charter in 1983 when she was Prime Minister. She became its second chancellor when she retired from politics. Free from state funding Buckingham has been able to explore many opportunities and in 2018 it opened the £8 million pound Vinson Centre for economics and entrepreneurship, the first of its kind in the UK. The centre was named after Baron Vinson, a British inventor, entrepreneur and philanthropist, who contributed generously to the project along with BMW heir, Susanne Klatten, a German alumni of Buckingham.

British universities should study closely and learn from the positive influence of the Cartu Foundation's investment in Kutaisi International University. The benefits will be immense: a new, STEM-focused generation of skilled graduates; cutting-edge research in physics and medical science; building formal and informal links for Georgia with leading Universities across Europe; and attracting new investment and people to come to Georgia and earn export income for the country.

In the UK, we must have the same, or, given our size and existing reputation, even greater, levels of ambition for private funding in education. Post-Brexit and post-Covid-19 it is hard to think of a better strategic investment than billions of philanthropic pounds flowing into new research, teaching and international expansion. Global Britain should not just be a pithy slogan for politicians: it is a goal that each sector in the economy – education, above all – can turn into its own reality. Partnership between philanthropy, the private sector, and our world-class Universities, is the way to achieve it.

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