This article is more than 5 years old

The morning after the referendum the night before

The decision to Brexit is inimical to the very values of university life and much that we take for granted, argues Martin McQuillan.
This article is more than 5 years old

Martin McQuillan is a former Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation) at Kingston University, London.

British universities have woken up this morning to an uncertain future. According to a recent poll conducted by the Times Higher Education magazine, 90% of those working in UK universities, academic and professional, wanted to remain part of the European Union. There will no doubt be some shy Brexiteers within higher education but the number is astonishing in its unanimity. Today, as the results of the EU referendum are known, universities now find themselves on the wrong side of a cultural and political divide that will have profound consequences for the United Kingdom for years to come.

There are immediate and practical consequences for British higher education. Some will be concerned about the status of EU funding for research and science, some will be looking towards the future of students from the European Union, others will be thinking about the prospects of extended economic contraction within the UK and its impact on public spending, and others will be anxious about the situation of colleagues and friends working in British universities with EU passports. To say, its kind of a big deal is to venture something of an understatement.

This morning the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom tendered his resignation and in the fullness of time the Chancellor of the Exchequer will follow. A new leader will be chosen by the membership of the Conservative Party and another cabinet thereafter. Those currently outside parliament who contributed to the Leave campaign may be rewarded with a seat in the House of Lords and a place in government. All of this will come to pass in the next 12 months as negotiations with the European Commission start towards whatever future awaits us. These are topics for another day.

While the government’s legislative programme had been stripped of controversy and hostages to fortune in the run up to the referendum, the Higher Education and Research Bill had been chosen by Downing Street as the one thing that post-plebiscite warring factions of the Conservative Party could unite around. It will receive its second reading in the Commons before the summer recess. Its market instincts and un-evidenced disdain for higher education professionals make it suitable fare for a government in crisis to push through to legislation in an attempt to present a front of business as usual.

There should be no expectation that the referendum result will see off the Bill. However, it does mean that its measures will be imposed on universities at a time when not only future government commitment to universities will be uncertain but when the prospects for government spending are in considerable doubt. These are topics for another day.

The fallout will be felt in Holyrood and in Stormont. It will also reverberate through the Labour Party, as its heartlands in England and Wales voted with varying majorities to Leave despite the advice of its leadership. The shortcomings of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and policy platform have been badly exposed during the referendum. The prospect of Corbyn and McDonnell leading Labour into the next election unchallenged has diminished considerably as consequence of the referendum result and their contribution to it. The date of the next election itself is now a matter for speculation. These are also topics for another day.

Today university leaders need to find words to give reassurances to their staff and their students. They must find a way to argue for the importance of higher education in the UK inside or outside of the EU and use their considerable lobbying power with government to protect their staff and to make the case for financial stability in an uncertain economic future.

University leaders will have to actively plan to protect their institutions and what they provide for the UK at a time of unprecedented political and economic uncertainty. They do not have the luxury of irresponsibility that now reverts to the leaders of the Leave campaign. Clear vision and practical plans will now be required to navigate a path through a scenario which most thought was unimaginable only a few short weeks ago.

However, this defeat will be felt keenly amongst the higher education community, from students to vice chancellors, because it has empowered a tide of political sentiment that is inimical to the values of university life. It will feel as if universities are now on the losing side of a culture war in which the stakes are the cosmopolitan identity of the country, the value afforded to expertise and education, the free movement of people and knowledge, and the prospects of another social and economic future beyond retreat, retrenchment and exclusion.

The widening of the graduate population and the expansion of immigration to the United Kingdom are perhaps the two most significant factors that have changed the cultural composition of Britain in the last two decades. The EU vote is a direct challenge to the latter; it also feels like a warning shot to the former. As the so-called ‘post-truth’ politics of the campaign demonstrated, it is not an exaggeration to say that the referendum was an anti-intellectual experience and that the outcome is a rejection of the values espoused by those in universities who argued for Remain.

Those arguments were made not out of the self-interest of an academic elite worried about their gravy train funding but because universities are there to educate and to produce new knowledge, and in so doing enhance the emancipatory prospects of the whole of humanity. This now feels very much at odds with a retreat behind national borders into a world of fantasy economics, parochial politics, and racial intolerance. As is often said in this column, the future of higher education is fundamentally political, and not technocratic.

There will be days to come when blame is apportioned with accuracy and merit to those politicians who played fast and lose with the future for expediency and self-gain. There will be days to come when the details of policy and finance will have to be argued over and advocacy will be required to make the best of a bad lot. There will be days to come when the future of colleagues, students and all those in the care of higher education will be better known and will need to be defended. For today, as the 90% begin to come to terms with this act of national self-immolation, they must commit themselves once more to the value and mission of our universities. It is in the months and years ahead that in the United Kingdom these values will be tested like never before. They should adopt the words of a late text by the philosopher Jacques Derrida ‘Cosmopolites de tous les pays, encore un effort!’  And it will require a mighty effort.

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