The EU referendum result will come as a bitter blow on a personal as well as professional level for many – the polls said overwhelmingly most – colleagues across the breadth of UK higher education. It will be easy to see in the mind’s eye only the most damaging of the predictions for a post-Brexit world with major threats to student and staff recruitment, research funding and cross-border collaboration, and of political and economic instability over the short- and long-term.
I’d like to call for calm heads in what could be a moment just for sinking heads into hands. Be glad that the months of campaigning are over and that we now have a fixed point of national constitutional policy to work towards. We must not merely hope that the Brexit outcomes will be a good ones, but we – all citizens, but our institutions too – have a duty to make sure this decision has the very minimum negative impact, and any positive results (which might not be immediately obvious) can be achieved.
There will be a point when the dust settles on government changes, when the value of the pound stabilises, and when we aren’t faced with Nigel Farage’s smug grin on every newspaper front page. This is when the work begins to make the positive case for Britain out of the European Union, but still within a geographical Europe: a Britain where we have student and staff mobility, where we promote borderless research collaboration, where we have an open-minded and internationally-engaged higher education system.
This decision does not have to be a “crisis for Britain.” Let’s remember that the colleagues who will be working hard on revising the treaties, on making the trade agreements and on all the other features of our new constitution are pragmatists. They’re wonks. Brexit is a problem to solve. It needs to be solved in a way which supports the UK economy, which provides opportunities across teaching, research, knowledge transfer, public engagement and all the other work of higher education.
We need a strong higher education system now more than ever. We need universities to apply their expertise in the period of Brexit negotiation to unpick the consequences of the thousands of micro decisions lying beneath the macro headline. Alongside the negotiations, we need universities to bolster economic growth, producing graduates ready for existing and emerging industries. And we need universities to be the champions of free speech where the issues of the day can be debated. Crucially, universities must champion the use of evidence in those debates and play their part in improving the quality of public political discourse which has been so hideously debased in recent weeks.
Fortunately, UK higher education is in good health and, though there will be justified short-term disappointment, I’m confident that universities will play their essential role in finding the good in this unfolding drama.