It was glorious 27°C sunshine in Liverpool city centre as delegates puffed their way up the hill to a drinks reception at the end of a long day at Europe’s largest higher education fair.
But a dark cloud was still hanging over many of the 4,000 or so visitors to this year’s European Association for International Education annual conference, despite the blue skies on Merseyside yesterday.
That cloud is Brexit – with most international delegates making their first visit to the UK since the shock poll result in June that will see the UK, at some point, leave the European Union.
For the UK referendum decision – driven largely by the desire to curb immigration – represents a fairly clear rejection of the worldview of the vast majority of those at EAIE 2016, most of whom passionately believe that closer international links – bringing students, academics and administrators together across borders – will lead to peace and prosperity for all nations.
“It’s hard when your country turns its back on everything you believe in,” explained a UK delegate to a group of international officers over a glass of Merlot in Liverpool’s Protestant cathedral, which hosted the day’s welcome reception.
Other delegates in a session on Brexit, chaired by Times Higher Education’s editor-at-large Phil Baty, worried that their seemingly noble desire for young people to study outside their home country had been cruelly undermined by Brexit and what the poll result represented.
Some non-UK delegates worried that their own countries were also embracing something close to Brexit, be it support for Donald Trump’s inward-looking “America First” policies or the nationalist movements seen in France, Germany and other parts of continental Europe.
“You do worry what the deals you sign this week will look like in a year or two,” added another international officer from a Scottish university concerned that hard-won partnerships would be rendered meaningless by the UK’s exit from the EU (although trade in the vast exhibition hall by the Mersey seemed as busy as ever).
Walking back from Liverpool Cathedral to a guesthouse in the city’s student quarter, however, it is clear why international students, and the partnerships that underpin many of them, are so important – not just to universities, but to the communities around them.
Within a few hundreds metres, I spotted several specially-built student accommodation blocks – the Europa, My Student Village, Campus Living Villages – that are clearly aimed at the international market, (7,000 international students are at the University of Liverpool alone) which brings hundreds of millions of pounds to the Liverpool economy each year.
A grand 19th-century Presbyterian church on Rodney Street, complete with Corinthian columns, has even been converted into student rooms after years of standing empty. What would that building be were it not for international students, I wonder?
With several thousand Chinese students in Liverpool, it is hard to think how the city’s economy – its cafés, shops, nightclubs and taxis – would cope without these free-spending individuals and their families.
As one of the UK’s most international cities, steeped in trading and maritime history, it was perhaps no surprise that Liverpool voted against Brexit – unlike so many of the neighbouring northern cities and towns that have suffered deindustrialisation in recent times – but the vital importance of the city’s thriving international student culture perhaps also played a part in their thinking.
Those attending the EAIE summit this week will hope that more cities and more communities across the world do not turn their backs on the ideal of international cooperation that has benefited higher education and civic centres so much over the centuries, and continues to do so today.