Brexit vote prompts academic soul-searching over gulf with public

There was huge support for Remain from university staff – but the public begged to differ

June 28, 2016
People walking past Little Britannia shop, London
Source: Getty
Different directions: the referendum result revealed that there was among universities and those who work in them a ‘profound sense of dislocation’ from broader society

A week before the European Union referendum, Times Higher Education released a poll of university staff. The results were overwhelming: nearly 90 per cent said that they would vote for Remain.  

But when the results of the vote came in on 24 June, they revealed just how widely the views of the academy and the public had diverged: 51.9 per cent of voters wanted out of the EU.

The most “profound shock” of the result “is the extent to which we found ourselves out of step with larger society”, said James Wilsdon, director of policy, impact and engagement at the University of Sheffield’s Faculty of Social Science.

Universities like to think of themselves as part of the wider community, he pointed out. But the referendum result had revealed a “profound sense of dislocation” from broader society, and this is “the more important and long-term impact” of the result.

“We do need to ask ourselves some searching questions about how that [gap between the academy and the public] has grown up,” he added.

In one sense, given their qualifications and jobs, it is no surprise that most university staff wanted to remain. According to exit polls, 57 per cent of those in the professional and managerial classes elected to stay in the EU. The same proportion of those with degrees also voted to stay in.

But this does not quite explain the near unanimity of Remain support on campuses, or the way more that more than 100 vice-chancellors lined up to unequivocally warn of the dangers of Brexit to universities.

Immigration was the key weapon of the Leave side during the referendum campaign, but it likely means something very different to university staff than it does to Leave voters. About 18 per cent of university staff are from outside the UK; 16 per cent of academic staff are from other EU countries. In 2014-15, 19 per cent of students were from outside the UK.

Exit poll data show that Leave voters overwhelmingly see multiculturalism, globalisation and the internet – all arguably embraced enthusiastically by the modern UK university – as forces for ill.

Universities, which have played up the idea that their campuses are multicultural microcosms of the world, also have a strong financial incentive for positivity towards immigration: in 2014-15, institutions in England received £3.6 billion in non-EU student tuition fees.

Many are also highly dependent on European sources of research funding. Eighteen institutions receive more than half their competitive grant income from EU funds.

Nor is the EU referendum the only vote where university staff have been dramatically out of step with the general public.

Before the 2015 general election, a THE poll found that four in five planned to vote for left-leaning parties: Labour, the Greens, Liberal Democrats or the Scottish National Party. Just 11 per cent said that they would vote for the Conservatives, who won a majority.

Asked whether universities were out of touch with parts of UK society, Stephen Curry, professor of structural biology at Imperial College London, said: “Yes, to a degree.

“Academics are people…they are deeply embedded in society”, but they have a “lack of contact with the socio-economic groups who tend to vote Leave”, he added.

But Dominic Shellard, vice-chancellor of De Montfort University, denied that universities were disconnected, “because almost 50 per cent of voters shared our view. True, the country is now riven, but in an equal split, and universities are not marginalised.”


Print headline: Gulf between scholars and public sparks introspection

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