Brexit cloud looms over sunny Liverpool

The historic UK referendum result is a challenge to the core beliefs of those attending this year’s EAIE annual conference, says Jack Grove

September 15, 2016
Brexit from the EU

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.

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Reader's comments (3)

As a long term resident of Liverpool and a staff member of the University I wouldn't say that the citizens of Liverpool voted to stay in the EU because of their fear of loosing international students, that feels like a fumbling stretch which neglects to acknowledge the hundreds of millions of pounds that the EU directly contributed to the development of the city's economy and infrastructure: EU money transformed Liverpool into a place where people actually want to live, work and study. The locals know this, even if they've never clapped eyes on a Chinese student from XJTLU in their lives.
Some Liverpudlians say the city's anti-Brexit vote was because the Sun isn't sold in the city, so their propaganda and anti-immigrant rhetoric had no impact on this area
It is disappointing to hear such a glib explanation for why Liverpool voted for Brexit from a long-term resident of the city and member of staff at (I assume) Liverpool University. Like many areas of the UK, Merseyside did receive EU regional assistance but almost all other areas that did voted Leave. Cornwall, South Yorkshire, South Wales, all in receipt of the highest level of EU funding as part of the Objective One programme and all voted Leave. It is also simplistic to put the city's revival down to EU expenditure either. Most of the money in Merseyside's first tranche at least of Objective One funding went on training schemes of doubtful value. More of the second and final tranche was spent on development, sure, but it is worth bearing in mind that the single largest transformation, that of a large part of the city centre by the Liverpool ONE development was 100% privately funded. Why Liverpool as a whole and Merseyside more broadly voted for Remain while for example Greater Manchester, South and West Yorkshire, Tyne and Wear, City of Birmingham and the West Midlands Metropolitan County voted Leave is curious. Explanations in my mind would include that fact that Liverpool is a more more cosmopolitan place than many outsiders may think it is and the fact that the origins of so many of its people, even if they were several generations ago, were not local with their ancestors arriving in the port by sea, is such that a sense of English or British nationalism is weaker than other places, something you'll notice when and England football match is being screened in the city. Sure, people will watch and mostly support the boys in white but there will be little fervour to be seen and defeat will be met with a wry smile. At stark contrast to the rampaging, enraged yobs who can then be seen in some other towns and cities in England whenever the Three Lions get their latest hell of a beating. As an aside, Brexit may in the end actually be beneficial to Liverpool is trade moves back towards the rest of the world - entering the EEC actually hurt Liverpool's economy to begin with - but the people didn't vote for it.

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