This book tries to do two things: to provide an up-to-date primer on the potential implications of Brexit for the UK’s universities, and to discuss the wider implications for universities of the factors behind the Brexit vote. It is not necessarily a criticism that in something written for more or less immediate consumption, it is perhaps more successful in the first aim than in the second.
In chapter one, the author gives the historical background. He contrasts the “universities as social good” view associated with Lionel Robbins and the “universities as key to the knowledge economy” view that now predominates, at least in official thinking. Incidentally, he argues that the latter started in the 1940s as a “nascent human capital theory”. But it was not until the 1980s that it became the wellspring of government views of higher education and led to the marketisation that is now generally recognised as the best characterisation of current policies.
Chapters two and three look at the potential impact of Brexit on staff and students and on research and funding. In both cases, the author argues that the implications go well beyond the immediate economic impact, significant as that will be (we are dependent, for instance, on huge numbers of overseas staff teaching and researching “strategically important” subjects such as maths, economics and engineering). The anticipated ending of freedom of movement will damage the quality of intellectual inquiry and collaboration in the academic community, while Brexit will reinforce the nationalistic and centralising tendencies already found in government research policy that are gradually commodifying domestic innovation, to both academic and economic disadvantage and without any hope of relief.
In chapters four and five, the book moves on to its second theme, the emerging gulf in perception and understanding between the universities and society, whereby universities, like other sources of expertise, are among the targets of the anti-elitists. Finn argues that the huge expansion of the sector in the 1980s and 1990s, followed by further growth since, has played a major part in this by dramatically (in historical terms) increasing the proportion of the population with degrees, so increasing the sense of inferiority felt by the rest. But the acceptance of the logic of competition and the internalisation of market values within the system itself has also played its part, alienating those who have not benefited from market competition. Clearly, the first cannot and should not be undone, but given the political and economic climate in which universities are currently having to operate, it is not easy to see how the second can be reversed.
Whatever one thinks of the feasibility of a “resistance strategy”, Mike Finn has written a useful and timely book and one hopes that it will be widely read across the sector, and especially in vice-chancellors’ offices.
Roger Brown, former vice-chancellor of Southampton Solent University, is the author of Everything for Sale? The Marketisation of UK Higher Education (with Helen Carasso, 2013) and The Inequality Crisis: The Facts and What We Can Do About It (2017).
British Universities in the Brexit Moment: Political, Economic and Cultural Implications
By Mike Finn
Emerald Books, 216pp, £40.00
Published 31 January 2018