I’m sure I wasn’t the only HE wonk that had a rather subdued weekend – I feel like I’ve gone through the full seven stages of grief over the last few days. It started with the shock and disbelief that immediately followed Friday’s announcements, because in my heart of hearts I never truly thought it would come to this.
Then came denial: the hope that David Cameron would thank us all very much for our opinions and then tell us to stop being silly and play nicely with our European counterparts. After which I thought about trying to bargain – should I join the petition calling for a second referendum? What can I personally do to improve the political process so that our country doesn’t face a crisis like this again?
That last question was accompanied by a deep sense of guilt: did I do enough to educate and inform the people around me about the implications of the referendum? Like many universities, Winchester held a good number of debates and discussions to explore both sides of the argument, but why didn’t I talk to my neighbours about it? Why did I assume that my family would all vote just like me?
Guilt gave way to anger at about 9pm in the pub on Saturday night, when for a fleeting moment I considered a new and brighter future on the other side of the Channel. Would I rather be out of the UK but in the EU, or in the UK but out of the EU? Inevitably that train of thought led to a very depressing Sunday, as I contemplated whether there could still be a ‘United Kingdom’ given the implications of the referendum for the devolved administrations.
But on Sunday night as I write this I realise that I have finally reached the seventh stage – acceptance and hope. I will never believe that this was the right decision for the UK or for higher education, but it has happened and now we must deal with it.
This decision changes nothing about how I, or the university that I’m very proud to serve, views the European Union. I’m sure that that’s the same across the sector. We will still have a European outlook. We will still be proud of our European staff and students. And we will continue to engage with our European colleagues for the purposes of research, knowledge exchange, and creating new partnerships.
So I have decided to take a deep breath and focus my efforts on making this decision a success. Many of the consequences for higher education aren’t clear at the moment, but as the dust settles we must all come together to understand the implications for the sector and to advocate for a continued and constructive relationship with the EU, even though we will no longer be an integral part of it.
I have also come to accept that this decision might mean that we won’t see the HE Bill in this Parliament’s lifetime (truth be told I’m beginning to wonder if we’ll see it in my lifetime!). But that doesn’t mean we can’t still move forward, and I hope someone somewhere is carefully sifting through the White Paper and Bill to determine what might still be enacted.
There are so many unresolved questions that need to be addressed to calm the nerves, but what really matters to me is how this will affect our university’s staff and students. I welcomed Jo Johnson’s reassurances on Friday that there will be no immediate changes, and that the immigration and fee status of existing staff and students from EU member states will most likely remain unchanged, at least during our two-year period of exit negotiations. I was also relieved to hear that there are currently no plans to change the immigration status of EU students due to start in September 2016, or their ability to access loans.
Higher education might well get left at the bottom of the large regulatory pile entitled “pending” that this decision has created, but even so I’m feeling much more optimistic. Our sector is incredibly resilient and we have some of the best brains in the country amongst our ranks. Even though 9 out of 10 of us will be saddened and disheartened by what has happened, it is now our duty to help negotiate the best possible outcome that we can for higher education and the UK.