Why would talented academics want a career in Brexit-voting Britain, where a handful of refugee children provoke a tabloid firestorm?
Banging on about Brexit five months after the referendum may be boring to Brexiters who have wrapped themselves in the red, white and blue flag of the “people’s will”. But it is such a threat to universities it can’t just be tidied away into a box labelled “summer madness”. The threat comes in three parts. The first can be managed, although with difficulty; the other two are more deadly.
First, the threat to the UK’s participation in European research programmes and student exchange schemes such as Erasmus. The government has given a semi-solid guarantee that research programmes will be protected, up to 2020 at any rate. The future of exchange schemes will depend on the willingness of the UK to contribute to the cost – and the enthusiasm for paying for a student mobility programme so intimately identified with the rejected “European project” may be limited.
Closely related is the future of staff and (non-Erasmus) students from other parts of the EU. Both are crucial. Teachers, and especially researchers, from the EU play a key role in maintaining the UK’s envious position in global league tables, about which we love to brag. Other European students fill deficits in domestic demand, typically in science and engineering.
It is difficult to see even a Brexit government kicking out established staff from the rest of Europe, or placing significant obstacles in their way. But other EU students are a different matter. They are likely to have to pay international student fees. But, because England already charges its own students the highest fees in the world in public universities, the gap between home (and currently EU) student fees and those paid by international students is much less than in the past – about £4,000 rather than more than £10,000.
The second threat is much deadlier. The UK is now established as a nasty country in the world’s imagination. No amount of flummery from the foreign secretary about “openness” can cover that up. Nor can rather more honest claims by universities that they are open to all, Europe and the wider world, as evidenced by the remain votes in the referendum in university cities.
It is difficult to imagine why talented scholars and scientists, and students for that matter, should want to make their careers or study in a country unable to admit a handful of refugee children without a tabloid firestorm demanding dental checks. Even before the referendum our inability to evoke a moral response to global distress worthy of our history was deeply shaming. To Orwell, England was like a family with the wrong members in control – and so it increasingly seems since the Brexit vote.
The image and ethos of a country matter even if, as we must hope by relying on our sense of fair play, the direst consequences are avoided. German universities, probably the world’s best before 1914, took at least three generations to recover their eminence and excellence after the world wars, the Nazis and the Holocaust. In a milder example, during the George W Bush neo-con era US universities lost out to rivals, including the UK.
The third threat relates to “taking back control”, one of the Brexit mantras. The EU has never been good at “control”, as the veto of the EU-Canada deal by the Walloon parliament in Belgium has demonstrated. Instead, it has a political culture characterised by compromise and consensus. The language of Europe is littered with “-ities”: mutuality, solidarity, subsidiarity … Power is diffused, for historical and cultural reasons we all understand.
But this EU culture has always been at odds with that elective dictatorship, the UK constitution. Fundamental principles, entrenched rights, legal scrutiny of political decisions, these had never been the English way (they may see things differently in Scotland); instead we rely on precedent and convention. These have protected the independence of the BBC, the courts – and the universities.
The danger is that Brexit will further empower the strong state of which the prime minister is an admirer. There is no better example than the higher education and research bill currently before parliament. Safeguards are being swept aside and conventions ignored, as the secretary of state accumulates unprecedented powers over universities.
There will no longer be even the semblance of a buffer body between universities and the state when the Higher Education Funding Council is replaced by the Office for Students. The dual-support system, which distinguishes between core research funding and research council grants, cannot long survive when both come from the same source, UK Research and Innovation (headed by a civil servant not a scientist). Universities can be stripped of their degree-awarding powers by ministerial fiat. A frightening demonstration of who, post-referendum, is “taking back control”.