It (probably) won’t be that bad

Don't panic! Don't panic! Ant Bagshaw appeals for calm and the a renewed faith in the power of wonkery and wisdom as we negotiate our Brexit.

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.

6 responses to “It (probably) won’t be that bad

  1. An incredibly disappointing outcome, and it is good to be reminded that we have the resources, wit and expertise to make the best of it. A key challenge in the immediate future is to be able to reassure our EU academic collaborators that UK-based academics can and will continue to propose, develop, and lead European collaborations. We quickly need to provide as much certainty as possible so that they continue to have confidence in the future of our partnerships. We’ll need our wonks to be at their best and to work fast!

  2. Ant, thank you for offering such a thoughtful and considered response on how we move forwards. I am particularly struck by this point: ‘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.’ It is good to be reminded of the power we do have to inform, and the responsibilities we have to do so.

  3. With change comes opportunity and the need for an even stronger roll for the UK HE sector which is already seen world wide as leading in teaching and research. EU funding for HE research, which is money given by the UK to the EU in the first place. The short fall into Universities needs to be address under a new settlement, based the money we now have retained and can decided how to distribute ourselves.

    International research collaboration existed before the EU will remain an important part of UK HE activity. I am sure in the area of academic collaboration we will look to continue working with European Universities and research organisations such as CERN (est. 1954), predating and independent of the EU. Money and prestige talk and we will bring both to the table.

    Many Universities have developed relationships, courses and exchange arrangements beyond the EU. Many more are in the pipeline. New relationships, courses and exchange arrangements will be formed across the EU.

    Nothing changes immediately and it will be at least 2019 before we see any changes come into effect.

    As part of this change there is a chance to argue for the reduction of regulations that restrict UK HE activity, from procurement to reporting. Allow institutions to become more agile in response to a global outlook.

    It is important HE now prepares through continued investment rather than a knee jerk stop. If we learn from recent history a number of Universities in response to the introduction of student fees and deregulation of student numbers reacted by cutting investment and reduce student numbers, fearing the worst. This was a mistake and these institutions missed out on the growth and are now just catching up.

    We have to see this as a glass half-full not half-empty, grasp the opportunities it provides and make it work in our favor.

  4. This is exactly the attitude we need right now, thanks for writing and posting this. Who knows if we’ll even end up leaving the EU. Or, if we do, whether it’ll basically be in name only when all the negotiations are over. Either way, let’s work hard, show ourselves to be collaborative and supportive to our friends and partners in Europe and continue to be welcoming and friendly to overseas students.

    1. I agree whole-heatedly with the sentiments expressed by Ant and I have shared your positive comments in the face of such distressing and disappointing referendum outcome with my Team who are definitely reeling at the moment for both personal and professional reasons. These words are particularly heartening to read as many know call for guidance as to ‘what can I do now?’:
      “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.”

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