Universities must make the positive case for the UK post-Brexit

Higher education has a key role to play as the UK negotiates its position following the EU referendum, says Claire Taylor

August 12, 2016
People holding Union Jack flag tea cups
Source: Getty

In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, it does feel as if the UK university sector is only just starting to recover from shock. Not only shock at the outcome of the vote itself, but also a feeling of shock that “expert” views emanating from universities related to the potential consequences of voting to leave the European Union were roundly ignored and even disparaged by both politicians and the general public.

That the university sector was indeed “hoist by its own petard” is perhaps not too much of an exaggeration in this case.

But now, following a period characterised by a fair amount of wound-licking and cries of “woe is me”, the sector seems to be turning a corner and is now looking to engage positively as Britain negotiates its position. For example, panel members at a recent Universities UK event examining the implications of the vote to leave the EU were clear that we now need proactive and positive responses to the challenges being faced.

Delegates at the event were cautioned against forming opinion or making decisions based on anecdotal stories relating to rare situations that often painted a negative picture of Brexit fallout. Rather, the key message was that although exiting the EU, we are still very much part of Europe and we must work to articulate and clarify what this new relationship will look like, within an ambitiously global context.

I welcome this more positive approach: an approach that seeks to creatively re-envision the UK university sector within not only the European but also the global landscape. An approach that encourages us all to promote the UK as a great place to study, and a place that actively embraces difference and diversity across staff and student communities within the full range of teaching, learning, research and enterprise activity.

And for me, of fundamental importance is the notion of community – after all, the word “university” is derived from “universitas magistorum et scholarium”, roughly translated as “community of teachers and scholars”. Being part of and contributing to community has always been at the heart of what we do as university educators and researchers.

Therefore, after the Brexit vote, as the university sector rethinks its place within Europe and globally, we should also take the opportunity to reflect on how we might positively influence community at a variety of levels: locally, regionally, nationally and beyond.

One community-related issue that was brought into sharp relief as a result of the Brexit vote was that of social cohesion, within the context of much debate related to immigration. It is arguable as to whether this issue in itself was a deciding factor in the referendum outcome, but there is no doubt that emotions have run high in relation to immigration-related issues, resulting in further division and fragmentation in relation to community relations across the UK.

In the light of this, universities have an opportunity to play a significant part in the ongoing development of better social cohesion, bringing people together and brokering better community relationships based on shared values, regardless of age, gender, race or religion. But what constitutes a cohesive community?

Well, it is worth revisiting the broad definition established by the Local Government Association (LGA) and its partners in 2002. In essence, a cohesive community is one where there is a common vision and a sense of belonging for all communities; the diversity of people’s different backgrounds and circumstances is appreciated and positively valued; those from different backgrounds have similar life opportunities; and strong and positive relationships are being developed between people from different backgrounds and circumstances in the workplace, in schools and within neighbourhoods.

Using the LGA framework as a starting point, what can universities practically do?

Well, first and foremost, I suggest that universities are in a unique position, as communities themselves, to model what a cohesive community looks and feels like. Universities can demonstrate the hallmarks of cohesion through how the organisation’s vision, values and purpose are shared, owned and lived by all members of the university community, perpetuating a sense of commitment and belonging by staff and students alike.

Second, universities are relatively successful, but they can do more to actively embrace and appreciate the cultural and social diversity that characterises members of many university communities, thus modelling a positive attitude in this respect within wider regional and national contexts.

Third, government commitments to further widening access and participation for prospective and current university students provide an excellent vehicle for universities to model the provision of similar life opportunities for those from different backgrounds and, crucially, to normalise this. Finally, universities actively model strong and positive relationships between people from different backgrounds who are living and working as community.

Post-Brexit, if universities truly want to regain the influence they crave and deserve as positive influencers in the drive to identify and break down barriers between communities and build trust and understanding, then they themselves must actively model the behaviours associated with community cohesion. Anchored within broader local, regional and national communities, universities have the potential to create a ripple effect, influencing beyond the constraints of a university’s own physical and virtual boundaries to positively support and develop meaningful, impactful and sustainable social cohesion.

Now is the time to reinvigorate the concept of the university as anchor institution, and to extend the idea beyond economic and social regeneration to embrace community and societal cohesion.

Post-Brexit, we face somewhat stormy waters, not least in relation to social cohesion. When storms hit and tides rise, an anchor is deployed to prevent the ship from drifting. It’s time to deploy universities as anchors.

Claire Taylor is deputy vice-chancellor at Wrexham Glyndŵr University.

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