What is the future of British Academia post-Brexit?

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Over the past six months or more, I have been quite vocal about my desire for Britain to remain a member of the EU. I have engaged in so many conversations, debates, and even arguments with family, friends, colleagues and strangers (with varying results!). Unsurprisingly then, I was heartbroken watching the results of the referendum stream steadily in, leaving me feeling increasingly disappointed, frustrated and helpless. Unlike my other medieval-themed posts, this blog entry aims to work through one of my many concerns about the victory of Brexit…

As far as I can tell (both within and without the echo tunnel of Facebook), there seems to be an almost universal disappointment about the outcome of the EU Referendum within the academic community. In fact, I don’t think I would be making too much of a leap to suggest that scholars, researchers, students and scientists across Europe are feeling heartbroken by the Brexit outcome. Personally, as a young, female academic (currently engaged in doctoral research), I am seriously worried by the decision to withdraw from the EU and the repercussions felt over the last few days. I fear its effect on the economy; I fear Boris Johnson becoming PM; I fear for the future of Scotland and Northern Ireland; and more than that I fear that hate and xenophobia appear to be increasingly normalised by the leave campaign. However, as worthy of comment (and tears) all of those fears are, this blog post is going to focus on my anxiety regarding Brexit’s effect on the higher education system.

What, then, is the impact of Brexit on British universities? Of course, it is impossible to say for certain and we will have to wait and see how negotiations play out over the coming months to be sure, but I believe that the outcomes of Brexit will manifest as: Financial Repercussions, Reduced Access to Resources and Lessening of Quality. I should also point out that I am writing this as a concerned academic and a historian. I am not an economist or a politician and neither would I suppose to be. Consequently, although my views come from the standpoint of the liberal arts and humanities, it should not be forgotten that academics based in medicine and the sciences face their own unique set of difficulties as a result of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.

Financial Repercussions

Earlier in the year, Universities UK (a ‘Higher Education Action Group’ made up of Vice Chancellors and Principles from leading universities) called for British universities to support the remain campaign. The organisation outlined how Britain’s academic success is undeniably tied to its relationship with the EU and explained how Brussels not only invests £1bn worth of research funding into British universities per annum; but that there are 125,000 EU students at British universities, generating 19,000 jobs and £2.2bn for the economy. When these statistics are considered alongside the fact that the UK contributes approximately 11% of the EU’s academic budget (but over the course of the last seven years Britain received 15.5% (£5bn) of European funding, and in 2015 alone, within the Horizon 2020 programme, successfully secured £687m of EU research funding) it doesn’t take much to work out that, with regards to research funding and grants, Britain receives far more in benefits than it contributes.

Britain’s exit from the EU ensures that universities and other institutions of higher education will no longer have access to these pools of money. However, this is just the proverbial ‘cherry on top’. The Brexit result is also likely to lead to fewer European students studying in British universities; will result in fewer research collaborations outside of Britain; will cause further uncertainty over student debts and fees; and is likely to lead to a withdrawal of funding for the Erasmus scheme, which will prevent British students from studying abroad as a part of their undergraduate degrees. Therefore, by voting to leave the EU, Brexit not only undermines the reputation of Britain’s higher educational facilities as ‘global leaders in science and innovation’ and limit opportunities available to British students, but would also deprive both Britain and its universities of valuable funding and financial benefits.

Access to Resources

Although Brexit will not prevent British researchers from accessing ‘major EU research-infrastructure projects’, as non-members we will lose both our status and priority access to this equipment and data. Although this won’t directly affect me as a historian, it could have damaging consequences for scientists who require access to the EU’s laser instruments, social science data sets and, of course, ITER – world’s largest nuclear-fusion experiment.

Quality

However, as outlined in an article written earlier this week by Dr Fabio Aricò of the University of East Anglia, concerns about money and access to resources are only the ‘tip of the iceberg’. The real threat of Brexit is going to be the decline in quality of British universities. The withdrawal from the EU will lead to a reduction in competition in the academic market, which in turn will cause a deterioration in the quality of teaching and output of research. Not only will this make British Universities less attractive to students, but it will lead to a loss of diversity within the student body. Students, lecturers, professors and researchers all know that cultural exchange is a crucial part of the academic process and, as Dr Aricò points out, ‘a diverse student population generates huge benefits in terms of learning and teaching for all’. Through a reduction in the quality of research and teaching within British universities (thereby making them less attractive centres to study) Brexit threatens to diminish cultural diversity within institutions of higher education.

So what then, as academics and remain voters, can we do now? As hard as it might seem, I believe the first step is to both accept and respect the decision of the UK electorate. The EU Referendum was an exercise in democracy – to lose sight of the equality of a Referendum would be dangerous (regardless of the current circumstances or one’s preferred result). Then, after taking the time to grieve for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, it is important that we take action. We need to reassure non-UK EU academics that their jobs and futures are safe and secure. We need to work together to maintain Britain’s status as an attractive place to work and study. We need to retain solidarity with EU universities, in order to overcome Brexit isolationist. And, perhaps most importantly, we need to ensure that the British government not only replaces, but also sustains, the lost EU funding.

Therefore, although the academic community might have lost the fight to remain, it seems as though the battle to preserve and improve British universities, teaching and research is just beginning – and it is only through solidarity and unity that we will overcome the difficulties imposed by Brexit.


References

Anon, ‘Majority of British academia against Brexit’, First Post <http://www.firstpost.com/world/majority-of-british-academia-against-brexit-2852828.html>

Fabio Aricò, ‘Higher Education and Brexit: It Is Not Just About the Money’, UEA Economics Blog <https://ueaeconomics.wordpress.com/2016/06/20/higher-education-and-brexit-it-is-not-just-about-the-money/>

George Bowden, ‘EU Referendum Brexit Effect On Education, Universities and Learning’, Huffington Post <http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/eu-referendum-brexit-effect-on-education-universities-and-learning_uk_576572a7e4b01fb658639e6e>

Daniel Cressey, ‘Academics across Europe join ‘Brexit’ Debate’, Nature <http://www.nature.com/news/academics-across-europe-join-brexit-debate-1.19282>

Katie Gleeson, ‘EU Referendum: UEA Academics from Different Subject Areas Unite in Disappointment at Brexit Result’, Independent <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/eu-referendum-uea-academics-from-different-subject-areas-unite-in-disappointment-at-brexit-result-a7101861.html>

John Henley, ‘Leaving EU would be a ‘Disaster’, British Universities Warn’, The Guardian <http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/nov/11/leaving-eu-would-be-a-disaster-british-universities-warn>