Career advice: how to teach Brexit

Beyond the noise of the front pages, the UK’s decision to leave the EU offers an opportunity to hone students’ skills in critical thinking and evaluating sources, says Paul James Cardwell

November 6, 2017
Remain and Leave Brexit campaigners
Source: Alamy
Poles apart: academics have been thinking carefully about how to include all views in their classrooms

Academics specialising in studying European Union law and politics have never been so much in demand – but they are also at the centre of the storm over what UK universities are teaching, and how.

The fallout from Chris Heaton-Harris’ letter requesting the names of academics lecturing on Brexit and course content, the Daily Mail’s anecdotal stories of perceived bias by students and others, and opinion pieces in The Daily Telegraph claiming that the EU has “infiltrated” universities have prompted academics to push back on assumptions about what we do.

The core of the defence is that we teach critical thinking and the use of data and evidence to construct arguments. None of this implies that students are taught to argue one political point or another to “please” their lecturer. As countless academic staff have commented, producing evidence-based arguments is rewarded with higher marks. Assessments attempting to please an examiner with a commentary on what their views are (or are thought to be) will fall flat.

Nevertheless, academics – particularly those in Leave voting areas such as the North of England – have been thinking carefully about how to include all views in their classrooms. Since it is well known that academics and students alike voted Remain, how to ensure that those students whose families or communities voted Leave feel included is crucial. Having an honest and evidence-based discussion with students, which also takes their feelings into account, is as important for challenging all kinds of assumptions.

But one of the main challenges of teaching students in the UK about the EU is that the dominant public narrative has long been constructed around “pro” or “anti”, which has now mutated into Remain or Leave. This is unhelpful, because it has become a question of “belief”, “faith”, or preference (such as left/right in political parties). In fact, it is best understood as an entirely different type of phenomenon: it is about the evidence of the effects of EU membership and the likely effects of different types of future relationship with the EU.

Crystallising into one position is unhelpful because it ignores the critical stance that scholars take towards the EU: it is possible to believe European integration is a generally positive thing, while criticising aspects of what the EU does and how it does it. A look at any academic paper on a topic of EU law or policy reveals that most people who teach and research the EU have been lifelong critics of the EU; the Leave/Remain dynamic is entirely unhelpful.

The ongoing controversy throws up a number of important questions: do we cover Brexit in modules on EU law or politics and, if so, how?

As book and journal articles begin to appear, what are the types of sources that we should use? How – in a practical sense – do we incorporate discussion of Brexit in assessments and exams, given that these are prepared months in advance? In such a politically contested and rapidly shifting process, how do we integrate discussion of Brexit alongside the regular content on what the EU is and does?

All these questions and others affect teaching staff in different ways in different disciplines. For teachers of EU law such as myself, nothing has yet officially “changed”, as the UK remains a member state and EU law continues to apply until the exit date. But it would be selling students short if no thought was given to the post-Brexit relationship, even if the details are only just emerging.

Partly the response is to use this unique situation to challenge our own ways of teaching and thinking about teaching, and use the opportunity to help hone students’ skills in critical thinking and the use of sources. Scotland’s universities have recently collaborated to produce an open access collective work pointing to many of the issues across the different areas of activity of the EU, such as the blogs by Steve Peers and Simon Usherwood, Twitter threads and official position papers stemming from the UK, EU institutions and interested groups.

This shift has led to interesting discussions about using sources from, for example, thinktanks and reports from parliamentary groups. Are they “independent” and what does “independent” mean in this context? With the amount of misinformation and misunderstanding on the EU, academics have a duty to point students in the right direction. Again, the only agenda this pushes is the one that requires students to challenge, to critique and to ensure that their arguments – whatever they might be – are supported by evidence.

Paul James Cardwell is professor of law at the University of Strathclyde, who has published widely on EU law and politics.

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