Brexit and the UK universities

What can UK universities learn from Brexit?
Mathew Guest
27 May 2017
Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University

Brexit is not a welcome idea in UK universities. For all sorts of reasons it signals a transition that academics and students find uncomfortable and perplexing. And yet as a cultural phenomenon, it teaches us a great deal about the society in which we live and our relationship with it. In this respect it marks an opportunity to revisit the assumptions we have about who we are and where we belong.

What Brexit means for UK academia in formal terms is not clear at all, and this sense of uncertainty pervades the country’s higher education sector at the present time. The website of Universities UK, the body that promotes the interests of the country’s universities, addresses the consequences of Brexit and the pattern of advice is the same, whether we talk about the status of EU student applicants, staff of a non-British EU background, or the availability of funding from EU bodies like the European Research Council. Simply put, the current situation will remain more or less the same while Brexit negotiations take place; after that, nobody seems to know.

Optimists may see a renewed opportunity for internationalisation beyond Europe, and if this facilitates the building of relationships with the two-thirds world, there may be positive moral arguments to be considered as well. But it is difficult to imagine institutional partnerships could emerge on the same multi-lateral scale, and any arrangement of comparable ambition to the EU will be a very long term project indeed.

Aside from formalities, Brexit has triggered an experience of cultural dissonance. With around 32,000 non-British EU citizens working in research or teaching posts at UK universities (17% of the total academic workforce)[1], what was previously assumed to be a safe haven of cosmopolitan inclusion is now no longer able to provide assurances about their right to remain. Brexit was followed by an increase in racist attacks, and xenophobia takes more subtle forms of aggression too, with many non-British university staff reporting a hostility they had not encountered in the UK before. Is the UK really as welcoming as they thought? Do they have a place in the post-Brexit university? It is here that populist rhetoric is challenged by universities at the local level, and programmes of support have emerged to assist non-British EU staff achieve employment stability in this most uncertain of times.

A crucial factor in this situation of uncertainty relates to the perspective of academic staff and students in universities on the EU issue; most did not expect the Brexit vote at all. According to one survey conducted a month after the Brexit vote, the majority of students eligible to vote (85%) voted to remain in the EU.[2] Of those who voted to leave, 17% said that, given what had happened since the Referendum, they would now vote to remain. Indeed, the overwhelming sense within universities after the vote was of disbelief, now having given way to regretful resignation. University academics affirm a similar regret, and their anxiety about Brexit focuses on preserving collaborative advantages for research, but also a corresponding experience that is about the expansion of cultural and intellectual boundaries, rather than closing them down. This is an experience we elevate as desirable for staff and students alike, and while we legitimise it in fairly cerebral terms – scholarship, insight, enlightenment - it has obvious cultural dimensions that resonate with some social groups more than others. Insofar as Brexit reveals a different orientation to the world, it highlights a profound dissonance between universities and large segments of the UK population.

On the one hand, EU law is seen as granting protections against employer exploitation. With UK universities increasingly following the US in depending more on adjunct teaching staff on short-term contracts, and academic jobs increasingly unstable as ‘efficiency savings’ lead to redundancies, we might look to our European cousins for a less market driven and less precarious model of the academic career. On the other hand, tenured academic posts are often listed as one of the most secure jobs in the current economic climate, and the autonomy they enjoy exceeds most other careers in the public sector. Furthermore, their academic capital constitutes a currency that is more valuable and more tradable because of the international links represented by bodies like the EU. There is something about academic work that renders national boundaries of secondary importance at best; we seek to shape students into global citizens, and resent being bound by identities that are more parochial.

And yet this conceit is a function of our status as middle class (usually white, often male) intellectuals. We can afford to ignore national boundaries because they have relatively little direct impact on our professional lives, or so we thought. Brexit disrupts our prior assumptions about the narrative we tell ourselves about who we are and where we belong in the world. If nothing else, Brexit is a wakeup call for UK academics, highlighting how the majority of the population do not think, speak or act in a way we ordinarily recognise as normative. As educators, we have a moral duty to take this seriously. Those of us interested in understanding human behaviour – including the negotiation of religious identities – ignore it at our peril. Those of us who feel a moral obligation to extend higher education beyond the privileged classes need to look again at what divides us from those who are less privileged. Brexit sheds light on the cultural boundaries that insulate university life from the communities all around us. We cannot reverse the Brexit vote, but we can learn from it.