What next for universities in our disunited kingdom?

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The UK’s day of reckoning has arrived. The polls have opened, and our country is due to make a decision perhaps more important than any it has made at a recent general election. The nervousness in the sector is palpable. We stand at a crossroads with one sign pointing to a world we understand, and another pointing towards a land very much unknown.

It almost goes without saying that the higher education sector is firmly in favour of one option only: Remain. It really cannot be understated just how overwhelming and near unanimous this view is, particularly across a professional community that is otherwise often divided over political issues.

The list is impressive. Nine out of ten university staff will vote Remain. Every vice chancellor. 83 per cent of UK scientists. 70 per cent of school teachers. 81 per cent of university students. Voters educated to 16 years old oppose EU membership by 57% to 43%, but among graduates, it is 38% to 62%.

Research into the preferences of parliamentary constituencies shows that, outside London and Scotland, the most pro-Remain constituencies are all significant university seats: Bristol West, Manchester Withington, Manchester Central, Cambridge, Birmingham Ladywood, Sheffield Central, Reading East, Leeds North East, Oxford East, Sheffield Hallam, and Cardiff Central.

This isn’t just a debate where the university sector has a partial opinion from the outside, making contributions about why Brexit would be bad for the finer details of research policy and universities’ business plans. Higher education, or lack of it, is at the heart of what this debate means for our country. Higher education is the core constituency of one of the sides of this divide, and lack of higher education is a central characteristic of the opposing side. Both sides reflect completely different Britains, and the referendum campaign has shown how little they understand each other.

One of the main reasons why Brexit is such a possibility is because the educated have failed to provide answers to the Britain ‘left behind’ for several decades. The result has been a latent hostility towards the ‘elites’ – politicians, journalists, economists, think tanks, business executives and (yes) academics – now whipped up by those posing as the ‘anti-establishment’ for political opportunism.

Disbelief with disbelief

Since last week’s poll boost for Leave, the general mood in the social circles supporting Remain has been of complete disbelief. A Leave vote would be an incredible act of recklessness, so unthinkably stupid to many of us that we never really believed it might happen. I certainly did not. At the outset of this campaign, I was adamant that the referendum would not be a close affair and furious that we would have to endure it only to see a one-sided result. Why were we even bothering to have this vote when the Tory backbenchers that the Prime Minister was trying to appease clearly could not muster the votes within their own supporters even to make it close? How wrong I was.

It is uncomfortable for a traditionally liberal and socially-concerned academia and university community to find itself predominantly siding with big business and a Prime Minister and Chancellor who have slashed government spending and social services. The trade unions and Labour Party may be firmly in favour of Remain, but their supporters and (more importantly) former supporters are not entirely likely to follow them. Leave has a 26 point lead amongst working class (social grades D&E) voters.

All the evidence points to a massive class and education divide in voting preferences that has cut right across party lines. A third of Labour and Liberal Democrat voters will choose Leave compared with two-thirds of Tory voters. Remain voters in these three parties probably have more in common with each other than they do with Leave voters within the same party. The referendum campaign has exposed the social divisions within each of the major parties’ broad churches that have always collaborated uneasily, none more so than with Labour. In the coming weeks, we will find out if they have ripped them permanently apart, as happened in Scotland after the 2014 referendum.

Old coalitions have split but new ones are being created, and they are perhaps just as unlikely. The Leave core vote is a strange mix of nostalgic Thatcherites who want to complete the market liberalising mission, jingoistic xenophobes with a desire to ‘take their country back’, and the mad-as-hell sections of our society who have been left behind by modern life and are determined that something – anything – has to change drastically.

The most overwhelming Leave constituencies are a social milieu that is remote, both literally and figuratively, from higher education: Clacton, Merthyr Tydfil, Boston and Skegness, Easington (County Durham), Barnsley East, Great Yarmouth, Great Grimsby, Walsall North, Stoke-on-Trent North, Rhondda, Blaenau Gwent, Kingston-Upon-Hull East, and Bolsover. Class, education and geography dominate above all else, far more so than the policy debates about the economy and immigration. One-third of BME voters – many only first and second generation immigrants – will be voting to Leave. Many areas outside of London with historic high levels of Commonwealth immigration have surprisingly high numbers of Brexit supporters. This is a divide between Clapham vs. Clacton; the difference in social experience between grad-job-seeking students at the University of Manchester and the estate-dwellers just a few minutes up the road in Collyhurst.

Social causes, rhetorical symptoms

It has certainly been demoralising to witness Michael Gove, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson to display such glee at being casual with the truth. Farage’s quip that “the doctors have got it wrong on smoking” is perhaps unsurprising given his particular brand of political cynicism. Michael Gove’s contempt for professionals when Education Secretary was a premonition of his later being “fed-up with experts”. It is all too easy to respond with scoffs and anger, but the Leave campaign has chosen to speak this way because it works. Too much of the resultant outcry has sounded reminiscent of Plato’s preference for ‘philosopher-kings’ over democracy.

The spiteful Brendan O’Neill also hits home for many when he accuses Remainers of harbouring contempt for the uneducated: “we, being clever, have considered all the facts, They, being dim, are howling and emoting rather than thinking things through.” If there is any coherence in the Brexiteer’s worldview, it is a belief in the fundamental self-interest of political actors; hence Gove can suggest that economic experts are Nazi-style state propagandists, and the Telegraph can complain about “expert beauty parades”. The EU bureaucracy, and by extension, the publically funded elites who support it, are all thought to be the apotheosis of Olson’s Law: that large collective groups do not and cannot serve the wider public interest, but instead, serve their own. A YouGov poll on popular perceptions of interest groups during the campaign gives economists a -1 net trust rating, charities -3, and think tanks -16.

Within this climate, the university and research communities are easy targets. We argue that leaving the EU would be a gross mistake, would not be supported by any reasonable evidence, and will be bad for national institutions such as universities. The sceptical listener only hears self-interest and a wish to preserve the status quo above all else. The highly educated and their educators have done relatively well since the recession and austerity, even with the diversity of experience within these groups. Vice chancellor pay is at a record high. Graduates are far more likely to get well-paying jobs than non-graduates. Research funding has been protected, and teaching funding has been replaced with a temporary government subsidy in the guise of tuition fees. Reform may feel very disruptive (and sometimes destructive) from within the sector, but it has hardly been an existential threat.

Contrast this with further education colleges, the education institutions most likely to serve Leave voters in towns like Boston, Barnsley, Doncaster, Rhondda and Yarmouth. For all the hype about apprenticeships, non-university graduates are facing a bleak future and their fates are constantly sidelined in public discourse due to our obsession with universities.

The vast majority of apprenticeships are in poorly paid but growing sectors such as health and social care and the bottom-end of business administration; they are not the appealing alternative to university for the middle classes that the government hopes. Further education colleges have been cut to the bone, and now many struggling towns may see their local college disappear into a distant conglomerate through restructuring. You only need to read through the archive of any education section of a newspaper to see that non-university post-school education is forgotten about. This is the cause of the contrasting attitudes to Brexit between the highly educated and the non-highly educated: one sees opportunities through the EU, the other sees leaving the EU as the only opportunity.

A shadow on the wall

If you work in or around higher education, one way to conceptualise the EU debate – and particularly the focus on immigration – is to draw parallels with the sector’s squabbling over contact hours in teaching (albeit on a much larger scale). Our national obsession with immigration is the result of misdiagnosis: yes, there’s a problem, but the proposed treatment will not make anything better.

The angry voters who blame immigration have been encouraged to do so by the Leave campaign because it connects a simple solution to an exceptionally complex problem. Study after study shows a negligible impact of immigration on wages but low-skilled workers are adamant that immigration is the prime reason for depressed salaries, poor job security, public service shortages, and community deprivation. The national debate on the issue, whose participants are all graduates, completely fails to relate to these issues, and was incisively described by James Bloodworth as “a parlour game… reeling off the calculations of effete academics cocooned in offices at progressive think-tanks in London.” The very way in which the public debate is carried out only further underlines the difference between the people involved in the debate and the people affected by the issue being debated. So it has been so for the entire referendum campaign.

Leaving the EU has become to our nation’s problems what increasing contact hours has become to teaching quality: a bet on an empty panacea, and a cover for more fundamental problems. But in many ways, the referendum debate has never really been about the EU. This is something the Leave campaign recognised much earlier than the Remain campaign. The debate is no longer about ‘issues’ or ‘personalities’. It is about whether you identify with the ‘type’ of person who talks like a Remainer or the ‘type’ who talks like a Leaver.

Repairing a house divided

One of higher education and academia’s most important missions is to understand the social problems of our age and to help politicians and journalists to make sense of it. The challenge is to make the complexities and caveats of research resonate with the everyday experience of citizens. As more of the population has benefited from higher education, meeting this challenge has in one way become easier, but the same trend has only made the populace who did not experience higher education feel isolated and forgotten about.

This social divide appears to be created at the very point that an 18-year old does or does not enter university. And no, the answer is not just ‘more university’. For all its life-changing power there simply have to be better alternatives and hope for those who do not attend university, regarding both jobs and education. Our sector needs to understand better how it sits in that wider context and think about how it can expand its reach without simply extending its size. How can higher education become relevant, rather than distant, in Clacton, Barnsley, Merthyr Tydfil, Great Yarmouth and Doncaster? Can the ivory tower ever sit alongside the boarded up concrete shopping arcade? There is some cause for hope: academics come quite well out of the YouGov poll on public trust, with a net +6 score – the highest of all the groups asked about.

Win or lose there will have to be a point when the highly educated move on from astonishment and despair at the quality of public discourse and towards finding the will to change it. There is an imperative to do more when blessed with relative privilege and power. The popular anger and uprising against ‘elites’ feed off having someone easy to blame for our current state of affairs. It’s not entirely unreasonable for the angry to have turned their fire at those blessed with more security and education, including the ‘so-called experts’, to whom they have supposedly entrusted leadership in public life for many decades. The vast majority of this site’s readers possess social and cultural privilege as a result of being involved in some way in higher education. We must redouble our recognition of both our power and our responsibilities.

Unfortunately, there is a very real risk that for all the socially conscientious research, think tank reports and newspaper columns, higher education and higher educators will find themselves firmly on one side of a new political realignment in Britain. It would be a disaster for higher education’s future if this were to be the case. Wider reach and relevance, in research, student admissions, knowledge exchange and public engagement, will never be more important for universities than in the weeks and months following this referendum, whatever the result.

3 thoughts on “What next for universities in our disunited kingdom?”

  1. Fantastic – among the best analyses of the Brexit phenomenon anywhere, particularly in the assertion that ‘the referendum debate has never really been about the EU. This is something the Leave campaign recognised much earlier than the Remain campaign.’

  2. Mike says:

    Excellent analysis especially on the relevance of education and training in deprived areas and the trapist silence of HE on the marginalisation of the working class, the seemingly inexorable decline of FE funding and its replacement by the low wage/low skills economy for many.

    So, HE should make a start by opposing now the socially decisive move to replace bursaries for students in nursing and other health professions with loans for maintenance and exhorbitant fees, for studies that fulfill a crtical socially needed role for the whole population. The consultation ends on 30 June. A new system is needed but “throwing out the baby with the bath water” is not the way to do it. University VCs and Deans of nursing who have publicly lobbied for this change should hang their heads in shame. It’s not too late – every single opposition party in parliament opposed this change in a parliamentary debate in May and if HE were to put its collective heads together and come up with an enabling and less socially divisive scheme, we could win. And the Brexiters should be forced to live up to their claim that by not paying money to the EU we would have more to spend on the NHS. Let’s make a start by demanding that likes of Johnson, Gove and Duncan Smith back a motion in parliament to come up with a funded scheme of bursaries and no fees for students of nursing and other health professions. The nation would thank HE for it.

  3. So educated people are more likely to make a judgement based on facts while less educated ones will base it on fear, scapegoating, and emotion?

    Makes sense.

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