As Brexit day dawns, is it time to leave differences aside?

Letting go of acrimony is not easy after three years of trench warfare. But post-Brexit Britain needs academics and their evidence-led approach

January 30, 2020
pro-Europe demonstration
Source: Getty

“We lost. Now rather than sitting at the sidelines hoping this venture fails, we’ve got to be positive.”

So says the satirist and staunch remainer Armando Iannucci, and with Brexit day upon us, many in higher education will be grappling with whether – and how – to make the same leap.

It is a day that most in UK universities hoped would never arrive, and which many have fought to resist in the three and a half years since the referendum result rocked remainers’ world.

And yet here we are – this week Britain leaves the European Union, and if not a lot changes as we enter a transition period (and while most of the threats warned about still lie ahead), it is nevertheless a landmark moment.

So should remainers in higher education embrace the situation the country now finds itself in? Or should they dig in and continue the trench warfare that has dominated the past three years?

These are the questions asked in our opinion pages, where two professors reflect on their own feelings as we cross the Rubicon.

For Simon Usherwood, professor of politics at the University of Surrey, academia has been characterised in the popular mind as a sector of “obstructive remoaners” who have sought to frustrate the “will of the people”, and this week is the moment to “change the debate and show the value of the sector to society as a whole”.

By focusing on evidence and impartial expertise, and ensuring that the values of respect, understanding and collaborative endeavour are at the fore, universities can step back from the toxic political division, shore up their own position and better fulfil their role in delivering for the greater good.

This advice brought to mind comments by Sir John Curtice, one of the country’s most respected political scholars, who argued in 2018 that universities had made a mistake by nailing their colours to the mast in the run-up to the referendum.

“Their intervention in politics compromised their staff’s ability to act as a source of policy expertise,” he said.

It is difficult to be too critical of that decision – universities would have faced huge criticism from within had they not argued to remain, and had the vote gone the other way, what is now seen by some as excessively partisan positioning would have been interpreted as strength and leadership.

Nevertheless, the argument about how politically active universities should be has renewed relevance today, when one senses that they could be at their own fork in the road.

The UK government knows that it will need this demonstrably world-class sector to deliver the innovation that it hopes will underpin a bright post-Brexit future, and avoid the alternative that many remainers have warned about.

That alone may be sufficient defence against the punishment beating that could, in theory, be delivered when the Augar review’s recommendations on funding are finally dealt with at the next spending review. Former universities minister Jo Johnson is among those to have warned his brother Boris against enforcing a “Cathaginian peace”.

But the “them and us” divide that the Brexit vote presaged, and which the result and subsequent bitterness have supercharged, could lead down a different route if it continues to fester.

We have already seen evidence that the higher education market is having a deep impact on institutions – pushing some post-92s to step away from a comprehensive academic approach to focus on a version of the old polytechnic model.

Cuts to funding would accelerate and worsen the impact on institutions that are struggling, and the argument that universities and tuition fees are some sort of pyramid scheme is an easy sell for those culture warriors pushing it.

So how political should universities be?

They are clearly powerful actors around the world – just look at last week’s announcement by philanthropist George Soros, who plans to donate $1 billion (£763 million) to fund a university network that he hopes will promote his own liberal values.

But perhaps we can agree that their power is best exercised through a reinvigorated commitment to core values of non-partisan and evidence-led expertise.

That is the way to avoid the populists' trap, in which they continue to be characterised as agenda-led, activist organisations that reflect the interests of some rather than all.


Print headline: Leave differences aside?

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