The UK must face up to the facts over Brexit

Universities’ income, collaborations and reputation will all suffer if the country doesn’t re-engage with expertise before it is too late, says Gavin Esler

June 27, 2019

I’m a recovering politician. I campaigned in the European elections for Change UK in London, where we managed 117,000 votes but missed getting a seat.

Since I’m also chancellor of the University of Kent, one surprise in the campaign was that nobody asked me how Brexit affects education, especially universities. Perhaps nobody cared. Things began to make sense when I canvassed near Oxford Street. A young woman told me she was voting for Nigel Farage because the EU was “totally undemocratic”. Three years of heated debate since the 2016 referendum and this person was voting for the European Parliament in an election yet saw nothing democratic about it.

The Brexit debate itself was a feast of non-expert, non-factual, nonsensical claims from politicians who either did not know the facts or were deliberately deceitful. Former education secretary Michael Gove told us in 2016 that the British have had enough of experts. Since universities are in the “expert” business, that would be unfortunate, especially since Brexit itself brings significant problems for education. And that set me on the quest that produced Brexit Without The Bullshit: an account of the facts about how Brexit will affect everything from schools and universities to the food we eat, the experts – doctors, nurses, teachers, veterinarians – we train, the travel documents we need, and the investment and job opportunities we will gain, or more likely, lose. 

There are three kinds of Brexit damage hitting universities. The first is quantifiable: money. Second, cultural damage to collaboration and the transfer of knowledge. And, finally, damage to the UK’s reputation for educational excellence, and a diminution of the renowned “soft power” that it confers.

Readers will know that UK university student numbers are down for demographic reasons. Applications from other EU nations are also down. Department for Education figures estimate the total revenue generated directly by approximately 130,000 EU students in the UK right now to be £2.7 billion a year net. University towns from Edinburgh to Canterbury, Cardiff to Durham are feeling the pinch. Plus, there are question marks over continued access to funds, including those from the European Research Council and Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions.

Vice-chancellors have warned that a no-deal Brexit – a zombie policy risen again from the political grave – would be “one of the biggest threats our universities have ever faced … an academic, cultural and scientific setback from which it would take decades to recover.”

Last December, I chaired the European Cancer Conference in Brussels. Practitioners and researchers from across the EU cooperate because disease knows no boundaries, and neither does knowledge. Brexit means an unquantifiable but real cultural loss - the prospect that the UK will be outside the room or on the edge of discussions between valued research colleagues.

There is also profound reputational risk from the political incompetence surrounding Brexit. According to the British Council, more than a third of the 131 Nobel prizewinners who studied in a foreign country at some time in their lives did so at a UK university. Prime ministers and presidents from Turkey to the US, Iceland, India, Pakistan, Ireland, Portugal, Malaysia, Syria, Iran and many others – plus royalty from all over the world – have also studied in the UK. Many returned home with affection for British people, customs and culture — among them Bill Clinton, former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, Singapore prime minister Lee Hsien Loong, UAE president Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani.

The incompetence with which Brexit is being managed has damaged the UK’s drawing power and reputation as “Brainy Britain.” It makes us seem a less welcoming place. And we are less welcoming.

Universities need to stand up for facts, experts and expertise. We need to shout out about education as soft power. We need to remind MPs, students, their families and anyone who will listen that much more than money and livelihoods is at stake. The UK’s reputation as a creative, inventive, open and tolerant country is on the line.

Ignore facts and Enlightenment values and the very reason for the existence of universities begins to disappear. But do we really believe that the UK has had enough of experts? Perhaps when Michael Gove (Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford) has a toothache, he has it fixed by some bloke down the pub. But I doubt it.

Gavin Esler is chancellor of the University of Kent, a former BBC television journalist and author of Brexit Without The Bullshit (Canbury Press), published on 27 June.

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