UK universities' EU-born staff do not live in a Brexit-proof bubble

Colleagues’ failure to fully grasp the more hostile lived reality for EU nationals post-referendum is furthering alienation, says Jawiria Naseem

May 23, 2019
Illustration of map of UK as an axe
Source: James Fryer

“We live in an academic bubble. There is no major interaction with the reality of British society. In this bubble, everything is ideal, everything is great! But outside this bubble, things are different. Before the referendum, there was no bubble. Everything was the same. Right after the referendum, things changed. Universities do not realise that.”

These are the words of Greek-born Vernados, a researcher in life and environmental sciences at an English university. They articulate the experience of many European Union staff in UK higher education. And with the prospect of a no-deal Brexit only prolonged by the latest extension to the UK’s date of exit from the EU, the psychological strain of the uncertainty surrounding EU nationals’ rights to work and live in the UK post-Brexit is becoming ever more debilitating.

I have surveyed 162 academic and professional EU staff at English and Scottish universities, and directly interviewed 25. The majority feel very (45 per cent) or somewhat (45 per cent) concerned about their rights. The other 10 per cent have permanent residency or British citizenship.

Moreover, since the June 2016 referendum, the experience even of walking down the street changed for EU nationals. “Go home, immigrant!” Galdino, an Italian member of professional services at a Scottish university, was told by a passer-by as he was speaking to his wife in Italian. “It was a shock,” he tells me. “For me, British society was flexible; it’s meant to accept differences.”

This experience of increased hostility, however, is difficult to discuss at work because of colleagues’ widespread assumption that EU university staff are not only immune to the implications of Brexit but are positioned differently to the general migrant population, both from the EU and further afield.

“I don’t think I have experienced…day-to-day racism because I have the benefit of being white,” says Inka, a Finnish academic in arts and humanities at a Scottish university. “But when I shared my concerns about Brexit with colleagues, it was pretty strange. They said: ‘We want immigrants like you! You’re white!’…They really said that!”

No respondent reports any racism or discrimination from colleagues or management, but 88 per cent feel less welcome in the UK since the referendum. And some report subtle forms of racism from students. When Marlise, a Scottish-based Portuguese academic in engineering and physical sciences, was pregnant, she was asked whether she was “going back to [her] country for the baby’s birth since [she is] not allowed to use the NHS”. Similarly, Jaela, a Dutch-born academic in social sciences at an English university – and one of only nine minority ethnic participants in this study – reports that, in evaluation forms, a student claimed that her accent made it impossible to understand her lectures.

After the referendum, the House of Commons Education Committee launched an inquiry into the impact of Brexit on UK higher education. Universities uniformly reported their apprehension regarding retention and recruitment of EU staff and students, as well as loss of EU funding. Yet the vocal support for existing EU staff has somewhat faded away with time. Yes, Universities UK continues to lobby, but how does that address EU staff’s lived experiences? Support needs to be locally implemented. Only 7 per cent of survey participants say they do not need support from their employer. And even when support is available (in the form of email communications and/or meetings), 60 per cent say that it is not enough.

Mixed messages are being sent out by the recent participation of universities in the government’s pilot of its settled status scheme. Is this really offering local support, or is it a silent acceptance of the galling reality that those rights will not be granted automatically?

The situation is particularly troubling for EU professional services staff, whose contribution is rarely mentioned (reiterating the high-skilled versus low-skilled worker discourse). They are not seen as the ones who attract research funding and students.

In addition, Brexit-related communications with staff paradoxically overlook the situation of EU citizens. Edeline, a Greek-born academic in social sciences at an English university, recalls one email to all staff about travel to the EU after Brexit. “It said to renew passports and apply for a Schengen visa. But that’s for those who are British! What am I supposed to do? They don’t even acknowledge you. Either they don’t understand Brexit or silence is the default treatment for us.”

A colleague recently wrote in Times Higher Education that UK-based academics should not rely on our universities to save them from the “Brexit fallout”, and should seek positions on the continent. In my study, 64 per cent of respondents have decided to leave the UK or intend to leave should the UK government fail to secure their rights.

As a major employer of EU nationals, universities must do more not only to reassure their staff but to acknowledge and take into account their lived experiences. Academia is not a bubble and those who treat it as such risk seeing its international excellence quickly deflate.

Jawiria Naseem is an EU citizen and lecturer in education and social justice at the University of Birmingham.

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Reader's comments (3)

I don't agree with the academic Brexit-free bubble. The pressure on funding and international collaboration is very high in some research areas. This has lead to EU staff leaving the UK to avoid their careers being smashed to bits. I know more than one colleague from the EU who, since June 2016, took the chance and left the UK. From what I hear from them, their mental health has considerably improved. EU student numbers in the UK have dropped quite significantly for some subjects. There's also the (unrelated to Brexit) general pressure on "securing students". Add to this the Brexit factor, some academics are literally driven insane. Some of there who are EU born or have links to EU countries decided to leave. Academia is very much of a bubble for a variety of reasons, but I don't it is a bubble when it comes to Brexit.
Apologies for my inability to proofread my own writing before hitting "Submit comment".
"Before the referendum, there was no bubble". Oh yes there was, it's just that now it has burst.

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