Shakespeare Martineau, AHUA’s national sponsor, commissioned an independent survey in February 2017 about Brexit.
The leaders of over 400 UK-based mid-market firms (those with turnovers between £20m and £130m) were asked for their views. That total included about 80 colleges and universities. A panel of 54 leaders from EU partner countries were also asked for their opinions.
The results of the survey were launched at a lively panel debate in the Shard just as the UK was about to trigger Article 50.
Firms of this size across the UK employ 16 million people, have a combined turnover of £1.8 trillion, and account for at least 99% of the businesses in every industry sector. They are ambitious and influential. Their views matter. What did they say?
68% acknowledged there were opportunities in being free to strike new trade deals and were optimistic about new inward investment to the UK.
74% agreed that business requires immigration to fill the skills gap. Brexit would have a negative impact in this regard.
48% had not taken actions to mitigate risks because of hesitancy in the absence of certainty of what deal will be negotiated. They want swift outcomes from the negotiation.
73% believed that the UK is strong enough to be independent of the EU. This contrasts with 42% who believed that the UK’s global influence would significantly decrease after Brexit. Those with more operations in the EU were less confident about independence.
The leaders in our survey who may have voted leave in June 2016 have stopped grieving and want to get on with the job of powering their businesses forward and making the most of whatever Brexit brings. Business cannot wait while the politicians dally, and are thirsty for certainty. In the absence of the latter, the best have already taken action to plan forward.
We concluded from responses to the survey that there are five actions that the best have adopted and which are relevant to all firms who need to establish control and manage uncertainty with confidence:
1. Take action now, treat the unexpected as the norm and plan for it
2. Set up a Brexit response team to react quickly to events, take charge of planning for the future, and integrate that plan across the business as information becomes available
3. Know your risks and plan against possible scenarios
4. Focus on your people, understand their mood and respond to their concerns
5. Benefit from collaboration by making connections with individuals and organisations that share the same challenges; there is strength in sharing good practice and facing Brexit together
If a similar survey were conducted within higher education alone, it is likely that the optimism expressed in the survey would be significantly less, and the concerns significantly more. Why may that be so?
No doubt this is correlated with the greater likelihood of many in HE to have voted remain. My view, in response to the survey and from separate contact with clients, is that many universities and their leaders are still grieving for an outcome they did not want or expect. They are locked in a cycle of grief, anger, and sadness that comes with loss.
None of us can know the outcome of the forthcoming Brexit negotiations. But there are lessons for higher education from the firms surveyed who are often partners and collaborators with universities. We can all take action now.
One of my work colleagues has put up one of those popular mottoes in our office that reads: It is what it is. This seems too passive and fatalistic. People in higher education are often those who do not accept inevitability and who turn events to their advantage. Brexit has started. It is. But we need not be the victims of uncertainty or unknown outcomes.
Like many of the firms in the survey we need to be the agents not the patients of our future destiny as Brexit rolls forward. Simple as they are, the five actions we identified from our survey are a good starting point.