Universities in the uncertain world of Brexit

There was never any doubt where the higher education sector stood on the UK’s membership of the European Union. Right from the start, Universities UK took a strong position in favour of the EU, and sponsored a campaign group entitled Universities for Europe. This almost certainly aligned with a widespread view amongst academics, as reflected indeed in guest posts in this blog.

But of course the UK electorate narrowly opted for Brexit, and it is now going to happen. But what that means for universities is still far from clear. The message from the academy hasn’t changed, and the theme still is that leaving the European Union will prove damaging and costly. Right after the vote, a senior Cambridge professor estimated that Brexit would cost his university around £100 million a year. Others have pointed to a whole list of potential issues, including staff recruitment, international student admissions, research funding, and so forth. Even an international university rankings website has regularly listed the issues arising from the referendum vote, all of them representing risks or disadvantages.

The question for universities now is how to handle this agenda. There may well be a risk that those needing to be influenced will find the flow of jeremiads to be uncongenial to the stimulation of second thoughts. There are no signs, for example, that the universities’ repeated warnings about the impact of immigration restrictions on the sector’s financial and cultural wellbeing have had any effect at all on the UK government.

The problem is, I think, that very little about Brexit is concerned with reasoned argument: it is more about emotion. It is the product of the fears of those who believe the integrity of their culture to have been compromised, who see sovereignty as an abstract ideal rather than a decision-making mechanism, who fear the impact of immigration. If your frame of reference is governed by abstract principle, then the technical or financial drawbacks of the project may not much interest you.

It may therefore be that those who are alarmed by the impending Brexit – and I am amongst them – need to recalibrate our language, and need to speak in terms of principle rather than of operational impact. This campaign may need to be re-thought.

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10 Comments on “Universities in the uncertain world of Brexit”

  1. Anna Notaro Says:

    Bit puzzled by the use of the term ‘principle’ towards the end of this post, first in “If your frame of reference is governed by abstract principle, then the technical or financial drawbacks of the project may not much interest you”, then, and apparently contradicting, “and I am amongst them – need to recalibrate our language, and need to speak in terms of principle rather than of operational impact.”
    As I put in my guest post universities should emphasize the *ideal value* of transnational knowledge, it is a battle of ideas which must be fought on the same emotional battleground used by the other side, we need to *own* the language of intelligent emotions, we have nothing to fear from emotions but fear itself .


    • My point is that ‘leavers’ are not motivated by the calculations of benefits and disadvantages, but rather by the ideal abstraction of Brexit. Therefore those opposing Brexit must also learn to use the language of ideals rather than of calculation; which is I think the point you have been making for some time.


  2. Ferdinand! I very much agree with your basic point, but on the theme of re-calibrating language, I’m still reeling from the sentence “There may well be a risk that those needing to be influenced will find the flow of jeremiads to be uncongenial to the stimulation of second thoughts”

  3. Vince Says:

    I think the analysis is a bit out. There are those that don’t see any gain from being in the EU. And a bit like the British Empire before it there are those that will never see any benefit from the EU. The error in social management over the last 40 years has meant that there are far more that don’t see a good than do.
    Ask yourself this. While the area you live now is countryside. If you take a 5 mile centered on Haddo, the estate itself is by some measure the greater gainer from the EU. While the people in the towns and villages not at all. Now the question. Are there more people getting a subsidy than not in that 5 mile.
    And the same is true in the vast majority of Europe.

    There are some things that just piss people off too. Why am I paying extra tax on a 2nd hand car I import fro the UK, or Italy for that matter.

    Sorry if you’ve moved. But you see the point.


    • I haven’t moved, but I may not see the point! I don’t think this is about people calculating whether they have gained or lost; I think it’s more emotional rather than calculating. And round here I expect they voted Remain…

      • Vince Says:

        It’s a calculation for those that gain, a very clear one. But for those that don’t it’s entirely emotional.
        Many many people have tried to get LEADER money to start small businesses and have been refused, only for Johnny down the road to get a haul to make Jam.
        The LEADER was designed to keep people in the countryside, but here and the UK it has taken on the meaning of ‘keeping farming families in the countryside’. And while the processing of these funds is entirely local, meaning the usual suspects and their connections, the EU is blamed.

  4. James Fryar Says:

    Well, I think politics goes through two main phases. In ‘phase 1’, governments out-source responsibility. They do things like give local councils greater powers to decide on where money is spent. They give schools greater freedom to allocate budgets. They set up quangos. They bring in the private sector to try and make things more efficient and cost effective. And so forth. In ‘phase 2’, governments claw back responsibility because they feel they’ve lost control of spending and accountability. Powers flow back to central government. Ministers and government departments rather than quangos become responsible. And the situation swings back and forth in a fairly regular voting cycle.

    The problem in England (not necessarily in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland) was that large swathes of the population felt that they had lost control. Immigration targets were stated and not met. Parliament failed to extradite terror suspects/convicts in a timely fashion, with delays by European courts cited as the reason (wrongly, since much of the delay was the speed of the UK justice system and the inherent right to appeal decisions). People watched as other countries like Ireland had multiple referendums on EU treaties while none were forthcoming in the UK. And then you had a global recession, largely the result of multinational financial institutions, people wondered why government regulators seemed to have allowed the situation. It was time for Phase 2 politics.

    People have been talking about overcrowding in the NHS for 20 years. People have seen class sizes grow, rents increase, house prices rise, public transport packed and expensive. The Leave campaign successfully managed to portray the failure of public services, the lack of affordable housing, etc as being due to extraordinarily high immigration. They might have had a point. But of course, no one on the Remain campaign pointed out that these issues were largely due to chronic under-investment by successive British governments, failure to build houses fast enough for decades, and complete lack of long-term planning over short-term one-term parliamentary lifetimes. That would have been a pretty damning indictment of the very people arguing to stay!

    The uncomfortable reality is that the young people for whom Brexit will have the most lasting impact are the very section of society who failed to show up in the voting booths. I think the figures were something around 30% for the under 25s compared to more than 80% for over 65s.

    So I’m afraid I don’t buy the ‘Brexit vote is fueled by emotion’ argument. I think voters were more rational and considered than you’re giving them credit for and that politicians took a Remain vote for granted. The reason the UK is leaving Europe is simple – not enough young voters bothered to come out and vote. Society is now picking up the pieces caused by the failure of modern politics to engage young people.

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      James, it seems to me that your comment confirms the traditional anti-emotions bias very common in academia. Pointing out the role playing by emotions in the Brexit vote does not mean, for me at least, not “giving Leavers voters credit”, I give them a lot of credit because I don’t dismiss emotions as some kind of feminine sideshow of history. Emotions have *value* and deserve credit just as much as rationality.The vote for Brexit was the product of many (objective) causes, as you identify above, such causes fuelled powerful emotions, the most prominent one being fear of the Other, linked to a nostalgic longing for an idealised past.
      As for young voters not bothering to come out and vote, I am not sure that even if they had it would have been enough.

      • James Fryar Says:

        The margin was about 1.3 million votes. Of the 3.8 million 20-24 year olds, only around 500,000 registered. That left about 3.3 million potential young voters. National polls showed that about 60-70% of young people voted to remain. So all the indications are that the young vote could have turned the result. Of course, we’ll never know now! But the figures are interesting …

        I’m certainly not denying that emotions have value! Nor do I see emotions as ‘some kind of feminine sideshow of history! I think that’s a leap too far in your analysis of my comments. But the statement was made that ‘that very little about Brexit is concerned with reasoned argument: it is more about emotion’.

        This I disagree with. It isn’t *more* about emotion. What actually happened was that the British public were being asked to accept the sorts of pressures I mentioned above in relation to public services, transport, rents, etc while at the same time being told that there were 3.3 million EU citizens living and working in the UK.

        The British public, armed with this information, made a very rational conclusion – if you reduce the number of EU migrants you ease pressure on public services.

        This was a brilliant piece of strategy by the Leave campaign. Not emotional. But rational. It left the Remain campaign on the back foot from the outset.

        ‘But EU migrants contribute taxes which help us pay for the NHS and other public services’ … yeah well we only need that extra cash because we have extra people to deal with!

        ‘But EU migrants work in our hospitals and public services’ … yeah well we only need those extra nurses and doctors because we have a health system catering for an extra 3.3 million people!

        ‘But our companies need EU migrants’ … our companies? You mean the multinationals who pay little tax? The companies that closed factories and put people out of jobs? The banks that caused the recession? The companies paying low salaries to foreign workers that undercut British salaries?

        Once the Leave campaign started down this route, there was very little the Remain campaign could do to counter that argument. And although people may have been passionate and emotional about the opinions they held, it was based on a very simple argument that the Remain campaign failed to counter sufficiently. Brexit is not *more* about emotion. It’s about 3.3 million extra people in the UK and many people think it is too high.

  5. Jeremy Says:

    What a mess for Europe … 2017 will certainly be an interesting year for Europeans and Americans alike!


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