Universities and Brexit: a test of our resilience & values
I’m fortunate enough to live close enough to my university to cycle there. Come Monday, the first day I was at work after the referendum, I found myself racing through the streets and along the park paths, suspiciously eyeing everyone I passed, desperate to reach the safe ground of my campus.
It felt like a Remain bunker in a city which voted 60% for Brexit. While it was comforting to be around so many people who were as distressed about the consequences of the vote, our organisation was far from immune from the fall-out, and many of us were struggling to come to terms with what the vote means for us (has anyone attempted an economic analysis of the drop in general productivity since the 23rd?). Here’s what we know so far:
- We’ve had reports of researchers at European universities are pulling UK researchers from joint EU research bids out of fear that we are “poisoning the well”. Bear in mind this is before we even know whether we are leaving, or the terms of our departure.
- The government is slow to provide assurances that EU students will have access to the student loan book in 2017-18. That means universities will start recruiting for the next academic year with one hand tied behind their back.
- Some institutions are more exposed than others by Brexit. Southampton Solent, for example, derives 90% of its research income from EU funding, as do a number of post-1992 institutions. A high proportion of students from Oxbridge, LSE, UCL and Scottish universities come from Europe, so they are likely to be hit by a significant drop in student income.
- Think we can turn our backs on Europe and embrace Asia instead? Think again. Anecdotal evidence suggests that students in India and China perceive Britain to be racist. A 500% increase in race hate crimes since the vote doesn’t help.
- If Theresa May does indeed win the Conservative election there’s virtually no chance she will do the decent thing and take students out of the net migration figures, or relax post-study visa rules, which the sector has been lobbying for to attract students outside the EU.
- Many universities have reported racist incidents both on and off campuses. Worryingly, the targets are not just European students (which would be bad enough) but non-EU international students and BME students.
All of the above means universities are facing a period of great uncertainty and an almost certain drop in income, though some institutions will be hit harder than others. It also means we will be facing a stress test of our commitment to compassion, inclusiveness and internationalisation. As well as doing everything we can to sustain our global competitiveness, we have to hold firm to our values, reaffirming our offer to students and staff regardless of nationality or citizenship. We face the spectre of heightened restrictions to border crossings, both literal and metaphorical, at at a time when – now more than ever – higher education requires the free flow of talent and ideas.