Although it has been less than a fortnight since the EU referendum in the United Kingdom I have already received a significant number of worrying accounts about not only the increased insecurity felt by non-UK academics and students but also of open abuse and racism directed at foreign staff and students. The instability and intolerance unleashed by Brexit could hardly have been predicted with any certainty, but the outlook is gravely worrying for a number of reasons. Long held as a ‘jewel in the crown’ of the UK’s continued global significance – as a leader in terms of cutting-edge research, innovative and high-quality teaching and in relation to positive social impact – British universities are now sailing into unchartered waters. At this time, clear leadership, certainty and global ambition are most needed. The Government’s position is one of ‘steady as she goes’ and offers a simple re-statement that ‘the UK remains a member of the European Union, and we continue to meet our obligations and receive relevant funding’. But beneath the rhetoric is a more telling reality that looks more like a government of sleepwalkers that does not really know where it is going or why. The mantra is the same irrespective of the topic – from the status of EU staff and students through to European access to the Student Loans Company, and from Erasmus+ through to Horizon 2020 research funding – ‘no immediate changes…a matter for future discussions’.
If a vacuum exists in relation to political leadership then it is up to the broader academic community (vice chancellors, learned societies, scholarly academies, etc.) to seize the agenda and to plot a positive course of action. The question then becomes one of the values and principles that should inform that agenda and what practical steps might be taken. In this regard three issues demand brief comment.
The first is an emphasis on tolerance as a central and defining feature of the British higher education system. Throughout the twentieth century British universities helped several thousands of academics who were in immediate danger in their home countries find safety and refuge in the United Kingdom. The Academic Assistance Council was formed in 1933 to coordinate efforts and today the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (CARA) works closely with Universities UK to continue this work. The UK academic community is therefore a global community. It is one in which those members who require support and assistance are not defined as ‘problems’ but as the source of new experiences and ideas to enrich those institutions that take them in. The challenge here is that the Brexit vote arguably projects a global image of intolerance upon the UK in ways that are unlikely to enhance its global reputation or student recruitment. A powerful campaign to protect and enhance the UK’s global image as a welcoming and friendly place to work and study is therefore urgently required.
Standing up for higher education in this time of political instability might also emphasise the public value of higher education. Not simply in economic or financial terms but also in relation to the value of learning for learning’s stake, for the role of education in terms of promoting active and engaged citizenship and for encouraging individuals to look beyond their own community and to reflect on their role in the broader world. It is at this point impossible to ignore the educational divide that was revealed by those who voted either for or against continued membership of the EU. Nor should universities be embarrassed to trumpet the fact that anyone who has studied at a university in this country tends to have an international outlook. But the hidden risk at the moment is that universities undermine their reputation and credibility if they accept, however unintentionally, discriminatory practices (such as an unwillingness to appoint EU citizens or to offer anything more than a temporary rolling contract) that will hollow-out exactly that international diversity and intellectual tolerance that makes universities such special places.
If tolerance and value form the first two pillars of what an agenda-shaping strategy for British universities – a shared vision – might look like, then duty provides a third. Duty in the sense of a civic and professional obligation to speak out against the current climate of fear and insecurity on the basis of a fairly simple fact: it is impossible to undertake world class research unless you are a member of a world class network that provides access to the necessary international experts, facilities and research groups. Shared resources, shared facilities, shared data, shared risks… all lead to shared benefits and truly transformational research in a way that is simply impossible to achieve on a national basis. British universities cannot be – and do not want to be – independent of the world around us. Collaboration and mutual stimulation combined with a willingness to trespass across national and professional boundaries are the drivers of discovery and growth and we need to make this case louder and clearer.
So what next for British universities? They cannot be allowed to drift like some flotsam or jetsam in increasingly choppy political seas. ‘We must keep damn close together as a community’ Sir Keith Burnett, Vice Chancellor of the University of Sheffield recently argued ‘remembering our purpose’ – to which I would add our tolerance, our value and our duty. Irrespective of whether the EU leaves the EU in the wake of the Brexit vote there is no reason why the UK cannot negotiate to remain a partner in Erasmus+ or Horizon 2020 and there is no reason why the Student Loans Company might not offer its services to European citizens who want to study in the UK in the future. There is certainly no reason why European staff and students should not feel secure within the British higher education system. It is all possible. But the time has come for universities to stand up, take control and shape the agenda.
Matthew Flinders is Professor of Politics and Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre at the University of Sheffield. He is also Chair of the Political Studies Association of the United Kingdom and is a Member of the Board of the Academy of Social Sciences. He left school at sixteen with no qualifications and understands both the ultimate capacity of politics and the true value of higher education.