Brexit: Where now for the UK academy?

As the UK finally leaves the European Union after years of turmoil, Simon Usherwood says it is time for remain-supporting academics to focus on the future. But Tanja Bueltmann says that for EU academics the scars are too deep

January 30, 2020
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It’s fair to say that British higher education has not had a good Brexit so far. Painted as obstructive remoaners, more interested in European Union funding than in fulfilling the “will of the people” and pursuing freedom of movement for researchers even if that means taking away jobs from UK nationals, universities have found themselves on the losing side of the argument, however unfair that representation of their position might be.

But as the UK finally leaves the EU, there is a golden opportunity to change the debate and to show the value of the sector to society as a whole. Whatever Michael Gove might have argued during the referendum campaign, “experts” have come out of this with their value strengthened. Precisely because the public debate about how to handle Brexit has been so partisan and divided, the presence of impartial, evidence-led voices – many of whom come from universities – has given the public something to hold on to during all the turmoil.

Universities can provide the forum for a national debate about the kind of society that the UK wants to become in this brave new world, creating constructive spaces within which different factions can talk with each other, rather than at each other. The values of respect, understanding and collaborative endeavour that we try to hold true to in our classrooms and our research labs are exactly the ones that can start to move us on from the leave/remain division that is now part of the past.

And it is higher education that needs to build this now because no one else looks likely to do it. Parliament has returned to its more common position of simply giving effect to the government’s plans, and the government itself seems keen not to talk about Brexit at all.

This will not be an easy path. It requires a substantial commitment of time and effort – organising events, supporting individuals and groups trying to facilitate grassroots work – and it means putting common interests ahead of sectoral ones. Yes, there are strong arguments to be made about protecting the broad range of cooperation with EU partners and about keeping borders as open as possible, but those need to be presented as being of general value.

Paradoxically, withdrawal might make this easier. There is no shortcut back to becoming a member state, so the charge that universities are trying to stop Brexit cannot carry nearly as much weight as before. It also marks an important opportunity to start becoming much more forward-looking in attitude: higher education (along with others) has spent too long challenging what was past, rather than shaping what is to come.

Brexit is going to be a major challenge for universities, and its effects will be felt for years to come. If they are to weather that storm – and it will be a storm – then they have to step outside themselves and embrace the opportunity to lead in creating a new debate that might serve everyone’s interests better.

Simon Usherwood is professor of politics at the University of Surrey.


European Union citizens like me have already been living Brexit every single day of our lives since 24 June 2016. Of course, hope always remained that Brexit might be stopped, but because of our specific situation – our lives were in essence made bargaining chips in the Brexit negotiations by Theresa May – we could never just live in hope.

The impact on us was immediate and not confined to something that might happen in future: EU citizens have lived a roller-coaster ride for the past three and a half years. It is a rather tragic fact that the outcome we now all face – Brexit – will finally end that ride and give us some certainty.

But that certainty, provided by the citizens’ rights part of the Withdrawal Agreement, has limitations. Now all of us have to apply to stay in what already is our home: this is not a fact that is easy to come to terms with. The government could very easily have opted for a simple declaratory system, one that more closely mirrors the promise of an automatic guarantee of rights that was made during the EU referendum campaign. But it chose not to do that. That choice will have long-term consequences and risks a repeat of a Windrush scandal, in which numerous people of West Indian heritage were wrongly detained, denied rights and deported.

In any case, the impact of this prolonged uncertainty is palpable now and already has wider consequences. A recent nationwide survey I conducted, working with the citizens’ rights NGO the3million, to examine the experiences and impact of applying for our new “settled status” brings this out starkly. A majority of respondents feel that government actions do not match the words of friendship regularly dispensed. Even survey respondents who have already been granted their new status, while relieved, remain anxious and unhappy.

This extends far beyond the settled status application process itself. The survey results reveal a wider erosion of trust, well-being and a sense of belonging to the UK. “Where is home now?” is a question many EU citizens ask themselves. I certainly do.

For those of us who are academics, these personal concerns are coupled with wider worries about the impact of Brexit on the sector that we work in. From questions over funding to participation in programmes like Erasmus+, much of what we know rests on government promises at best. Personally, I am particularly saddened by the potential losses to my students. I want them to have the opportunities I had – in my case, experiencing the UK – as an Erasmus student.

That situation, plus the question of protecting citizens’ rights and my more personal experiences of hate and threats since the EU referendum, is why I will not – I cannot just knuckle down now. 31 January 2020 marks a tragic watershed. That is why, for me, the only way forward is to keep making the case for the open and tolerant UK that I fell in love with many, many years ago.

Tanja Bueltmann is professor of migration and diaspora history at Northumbria University.

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Reader's comments (6)

I think it's foolish- or disingenuous- to expect that Brexit's progress will receive any support from former remainers, or new generations of voters, or most of academia (however much propoganda they are fed). It's basically saying, support nationalist populism or 19th C Toryism, despite everything history and scholarship tells us about where this leads. Whatever happened to speaking truth to power, especially when power is making veiled and vacuous threats against those who don't 'get behind the nation'? It seems highly unlikely that such regression can succeed: instead it seems clear there will be a long struggle and more turmoil if you take a look at the long-standing evidence. It's also hard to imagine that British academia will be good place to weather this storm and pursue serious research.
Why should I respect people who have mocked me relentlessly for being on the "losing" side, told me to "accept my defeat" and just "give up", have no respect for the laws that their own team have broken or bent in order to bring about their utopia, have no respect for evidence, or liberal democratic institutions? A group of people who are (in my experience) driven by bitterness, senility, or good-old-fashioned simple racism. A group of people trying to get an expletive-laden, disrespectful song to #1 in the charts for Brexit day as a last two fingers up to the EU, whose commander-in-chief Farage was thrown out of the EU parliament on his last day for saying that he "hated" the EU? Why on Earth should I show these people any respect? They deserve derision. I will save my respect for the next generation.
I remain a European even if, as a UK citizen, my EU citizenship is to be removed from me against my will tomorrow night. Surely it is my right to choose my allegiance rather than have it dictated to me by others?
I voted remain but I am disappointed by the extreme voices of both sides of this argument, of which only one side seems to be represented here. Sadly the two sides at this level seem not to have risen above insult and I my disappointment is greater that these contributions are supposed to come from those whose status within society should reflect a more measured response to a situation they can o longer affect. In the final analysis, whether you like it or not, whether you think one side or the other lied, (and both did) it is how democracy works. Unless what I am witnessing here is some desire to ensure only people of a certain level of education should be allowed to vote or make decisions.
One big hurdle: Tuition fees. ie. St Andrews University. -. Scotts & EU nationals, 1,820 GBP. -. England, Wales & N. Ireland, 9,250 GBP. -. Rest of the world, 23,910 GBP. No EU national is going to study in UK universities with such a high degree of uncertainty. Source:
Re. tuition fees... There are plenty of universities on the continent what now have courses in English. Their standards are equal, if not superior, to many UK universities. They also happen to be free or much, much cheaper than UK degrees. UK universities will end up relying more and more on Asian and African students; provided they also don't eventually decide to invest their money elsewhere. With grade inflation and commodification, the reputational value of a degree from the UK will decrease. "Rest of the world" students may prefer to go elsewhere. But of course, this is just a speculation and the shift won't happen rapidly. The main change will be the loss of EU students (this has started already).