Brexit signals the end of a unified Europe, and HE has much to lose

Kerstin Mey has worked in UK higher education for more than 20 years and fears what the referendum means for her adopted academic home

June 28, 2016
Pile of European Union (EU) and United Kingdom (UK) flag badges

After a weekend of reflection on the outcome of the European Union referendum in the UK, in Europe and the wider world, the politicians’ tone of voice and the sentiments in the media are cooling down, while the scale of the impending challenges for the UK begins to dawn.

It manifests another step towards what one of Europe’s leading public intellectuals, the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, has called the "crisis of the European Union". In its complex rendering, the Brexit signals as much the vanishing of the ideal of a unified Europe built as a "post-nation democracy" as a deep distrust in neoliberal politics and the rejection of an austerity economy. 

The sustained assault on the welfare state has been keenly felt by many people in this country, while the blame has been easily placed on both transnational political powers, and those who have come to the UK for a better life and who have, in their vast majority, contributed significantly not only to the economy but to the rich culture of the British Isles. 

No one knows yet how the outcome of the referendum will shape the political landscape, the economy, the social fabric and cultural life of the UK in the longer term, or how it will affect the "European project", in which so many UK citizens and residents continue to believe. We do not know yet what the consequences of the referendum will be for those who, like me, have taken advantage of free movement in the member states of the EU and worked and built their lives in the UK.

For more than 20 years I have contributed to higher education and the wider society in different parts of this country. 

I very much value the diversity of students and staff that have long characterised UK universities. At the University of Westminster, where I currently work, students and staff come from more than 150 countries. Among them are many from other EU countries. We feel valued and embrace their multifarious experiences and different perspectives that help to foster critical engagement and global citizenship in all our students. 

The international flow of capital and information and the complexity of the societal challenges we face today do not only necessitate an increased and closer cooperation between and beyond nation states. More than anything, it requires people who are persistently inquisitive, imaginative and resilient, who are open to the unfamiliar and the uncommon.

The Erasmus+ programme makes an important contribution to support outward mobility of students and academics in the UK, and to invite their counterparts from other European countries for study visits. 

The establishment of the European Research Area has the movement of researchers at its heart. It not only drives the building of a common infrastructure for inquiry and discovery in the sciences, but also encourages transnational knowledge transfer, better working conditions and gender equality for its researchers. Its funding schemes such as Horizon 2020, which include the Marie Skłodowska-Curie mobility actions, play a major role in promoting first-hand experiences of the diverse and rich culture of Europe.

Measures like these, or the Creative Europe scheme, foster a broadening of horizons and tolerance based on the appreciation and better understanding of different cultural traditions, values and beliefs of humanity. Without schemes like these, and without accessible opportunities for studying and working across national boundaries, the UK would be a lot poorer.

More than ever, education at all levels needs to be fiercely global in outlook and uncompromisingly grounded in the real issues our society and communities face to make a difference in the world.

Kerstin Mey is a German national living in the UK who is pro vice-chancellor and dean of the Westminster School of Media, Arts and Design at the University of Westminster.

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