Brexit is a “gross act of self-harm” that potentially “jeopardises the world-class status” of UK universities, according to Lord Mandelson.
The former Labour business secretary and European Commissioner, who started his five-year term as Manchester Metropolitan University chancellor in April, also said that Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s goal of scrapping tuition fees was “not credible” and not “an honest promise”, warning that the party had generally been “rendered unelectable”.
In an interview with Times Higher Education, Lord Mandelson, a senior figure in the Remain campaign, said: “For me, Brexit is a gross act of self-harm.
“It rather breaks my heart, not only to see the harm we’re doing to ourselves, potentially, but also what it says about us as a country, as a society: more isolated, more protectionist and, I’m afraid in some quarters, just plainly anti-foreigner. I hate it.”
Asked whether the hostility towards “experts” voiced by some in the Leave campaign was a worrying element to emerge from the referendum, Lord Mandelson said: “We’ve seen in history what happens when populist forces burn books, banish academics, condemn experts. It leads to a very unhappy end place.”
On the impact of Brexit on universities, he said: “Our higher education system in Britain is world-class because it has the best brains working within it. Erecting barriers to the movement of talent from across the whole of the European Economic Area into UK universities jeopardises that world-class status.”
He added that ending participation for UK universities in European Union-funded research projects “would not only be catastrophic for the UK’s ability to generate cutting-edge science, but also for the financial position of universities, for which EU funding is crucial”.
Lord Mandelson continued: “It’s possible the UK may be able to tap into EU-wide [research] projects and funding as an associated country, but whether this will be a priority for the government in the [Brexit] negotiation is unclear.”
Asked how he would advise universities to make their case on Brexit to the government, he said: “Speak up, be granular and be determined. Bring it home always to specific examples where universities and their students and our research base are going to lose, how we’re going to diminish ourselves not only as a country with world-class universities but as an economy…Be unrelenting and be public.”
The former Hartlepool MP ran to be University of Manchester chancellor last year, but lost out to the poet Lemn Sissay in the final vote.
He said that “universities bring great benefits to the city [Manchester], and I want to boost that…I want Manchester to become a great university city and an international one”.
Lord Mandelson said that he “wanted be active in the higher education sector, I wanted to be associated with a Northern university because that’s where I put down my political roots when I first went into Parliament, and I wanted to be with a university that is modern and ambitious”.
As business secretary in 2009, Lord Mandelson set up the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance and appointed Lord Browne of Madingley, the former BP chief executive, to lead it.
When the review reported under the coalition government in 2010, it paved the way to the trebling of tuition fees to £9,000 and the slashing of public teaching funding.
Lord Mandelson said on £9,000 fees: “Whether I would have taken fees to this level is one question. It’s not what I envisaged when I set up the Browne review.
“For me the rationale for shifting more towards personal contributions was that the fiscal burden of funding teaching was becoming unsustainable – partly because it was growing so quickly. And I didn’t want the state’s ability to fund the sector to become a constraint on the number of people who could study.”
Lord Mandelson backed the principle of graduate contributions, repaid when earning above £21,000, but did not support the idea of a graduate tax.
But asked whether he might support the lowering of fees, whether he thought the government had gone too far in scrapping the bulk of direct public funding for teaching, he replied: “Arguably I think it has gone too far. We cannot go further along that course.
“We are in danger of failing to recognise the taxpayer responsibility and the overall national gain from funding higher education now, just as in a previous generation we perhaps were too light on personal contributions given the potential personal gain for individuals who go to university. It’s a question of balance and striking it correctly.”
Mr Corbyn last year told THE that he was keen for his goal of scrapping tuition fees to become Labour policy.
“It’s not credible,” Lord Mandelson said of such a policy.
He questioned how the cost of scrapping fees would be funded. “By spending less on health or housing? Or by raising general taxation, the burden of which would inevitably fall on middle-income families?
“We have to be honest about the cost of providing higher education…I don’t think that’s an honest promise to make,” said the peer.
On the Labour Party in general, he added: “We have been rendered unelectable. That violates the very operating principle of a political party…The only way in which we can make any difference to the country or to people who need us to represent their interests is by getting elected.”