Now that Brexit is done – Whither the University?

Brexit has been a painful, unexpected outcome for the entire university community. In one stroke, the nation has made a decision to undo decades of painstaking work by the university community to build enduring links with our brothers and sisters in Europe. Hugely beneficial scientific projects are at risk as future EU funding becomes uncertain, widely taken for granted continental networking opportunities are at risk of drying up as freedom of movement suddenly falls under threat, and cross-Europe study programmes for students, notably the hugely successful ERASMUS project, are suddenly at risk of coming to an abrupt standstill. Indeed, for the university sector, the world has been turned upside down, and we are in mourning. But mourning has its own place, and its own time, and life still has to go on. The university community now needs to quickly take stock of the damage that has been wrought by the Brexit tsunami, and to plot how to effectively defend itself from the Brexit fallout.

What We have Learnt from the Brexit Outcome

Painful as it is, Brexit comes along with important lessons that we in the university community need to grapple with urgently. The first lesson is that 52% of the entire UK population, that proportion which voted to leave the European Union (EU), completely ignored our plaintive cries for them to side with us and vote for the country to remain inside the EU. It was as if we were speaking in a language that they couldn’t understand. And in the few moments they heard our argument, it was as if it was no concern for them. Indeed, analysis by various newspapers now reveals that we, the university community, and the majority of the people who voted to leave belong to entirely different planets. According to the various analyses, Leavers (as those who voted to leave prefer to be called) are more likely to hold non-university level qualifications, are more likely to live in non-university neighbourhoods, and are more likely to belong to population segments which traditionally have little or no access to university education [see The Telegraph, for example]. In short, a significant proportion of Leavers do not perceive any tangible benefits that the university has brought to their lives.

Another factor that has now become clear is that the values that the university hold dear are at variance with the values held by a significant proportion of our society. Whereas the university extols the benefits of globalisation,  revels in increased internationalisation, and takes pride in the multi-culturality of the university community, a significant proportion of Leavers are strongly anti-immigration, anti-globalisation, and increasingly nationalistic in outlook. Whereas the university community is intent on an open, welcoming environment, the rest of the nation, as epitomised by the Leavers, is intent on an inward looking, non-welcoming, circumspect, self-preservation outlook. The only people who appear to share the same values as the university community are the young, educated people, and those population segments for which going to university has always been the norm.

What We Stand to Lose

It goes without saying that as a university community, we have benefited immensely from membership of the European Union. UK universities have been extremely successful in attracting EU and non-EU academic talent to its ranks. UK universities lead on at least a third of the projects funded by Horizon 2020 – Europe’s largest funding programme, worth nearly €80m; UK universities are involved in cutting edge prestigious projects funded by the EU, including the Oxfordshire-based Joint European Torus (JET) laboratory, which is the world’s largest and most powerful fusion reactor worldwide[The Register]. In addition, a steady stream of non-UK EU students have been flowing into UK universities,  with at least one in five students at some universities being non-UK European nationals [The Times Higher Education]. All this has brought prestige and money to UK universities. Suddenly, Brexit has pulled the plug, and the entire university community now faces a dark unpalatable abyss. Our standing in the world is now at grave risk. For one, the resources to maintain a world-beating university system are now severely threatened.

And the Brexit contagion has gone beyond the EU as well. Such has been the bitterness of the Brexit campaign that across the entire world, there is an increasing feeling that the UK no longer welcomes foreigners. Social media, with its instant connectivity, has made a bad situation much worse. For instance, a blog title by a German-born UK academic – ‘I’m scared’: German academic in the UK on the Brexit vote – has been retweeted 198 times in less than 12 hours. This suggests that Brexit is likely to drive away hundreds, if not thousands, of prospective international students in the short to medium term.  And the Leavers couldn’t care less, and the current crop of politicians, who pander only to the whims of the majority, couldn’t care less as well.

What the University Community Needs to Do

The people have voted, but that’s not the end. We are told that exit negotiations can take anything up to ten years. Untangling 40 years of engagement with the EU is going to be messy, and deciding what to take, and what to leave is going to be contentious. Up and down the country competing interest groups are making their individual cases known to the government. The financial services are hinting that they will relocate to the continent; and so is the motor car industry, and who knows who else?  The government is in a state of paralysis at the moment, and civil servants and politicians seem clueless as to how best to proceed. This means that government will listen to the strongest voice, and we need to argue our case as a university community, and we need to do that very strongly. A wrong deal, and the university system as we know it can all but disappear.

And we need to bring the disenchanted majority to our side. Universities have brought economic and social revival to whole regions up and down the country. Universities are magnets for investment, and we need to go out into the community and share that message. Above all we must take community engagement much more seriously. For instance, how many Professors of Engineering  have reached out to their local communities and small businesses? How many academics can positively confirm that their work is known outside of the university campus?  We need to bring in both the Leavers and the Remainers to our side, and there is much work to be done.

We also need to bring in our European friends to our side so that they can put in a good word for us in Brussels now, and so that they can fight for us when exit negotiations with the remainder of the EU start in earnest. The European University Association has stated:

“Regardless of the result of the referendum, British universities are and remain an essential part of the European family of universities, which extends beyond EU borders. This community of knowledge and learning is strong and longstanding, and it will surely overcome this crisis, although the questions and consequences of the British exit are certainly formidable. EUA will continue to work with and for British universities. The Europe of universities will not be divided!”

Let’s not squander this opportunity.  Jo Johnson, Minister of State for Universities and Science, tweeted soon after the Brexit results: “Big decision. Let’s make it work.” Let’s get working, and let’s get working right now.

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