The EU referendum exposed fractures and divisions in our society that have long existed: graduates vs non-graduates; the ‘metropolitan elite’ vs more traditional communities; globalists vs nativists; the anger and frustration of many white, working class men. Universities have an essential role to play in healing these newly uncovered wounds, but rather than this being a new mission, it actually requires rediscovery of an old one.
Universities’ charitable objects are to advance education, not just amongst those who reach out for it, but amongst those who might not see it for them. For most universities such obligations are firmly rooted in their local region. Our universities names are defined by their localities: the universities of Leeds, of Sunderland, of Lincoln, of Plymouth. Not only that, the preamble to most founding charters of our universities explicitly state that the founder is establishing an institution in an area where there was not one previously. The University of Warwick’s, for example, refers to a petition to “constitute and found a University within Our County of Warwick and City of Coventry for the advancement of learning and knowledge by teaching and research”. For those more modern universities which are statutory corporations, the local link derives from their birth out of local authorities.
Yet whilst our universities’ charitable status is very clearly linked (albeit not limited) to their region, our institutions’ strategic attention are increasingly diverted towards national and international challenges. This is partly driven by the new global dimension of markets and the manner in which universities are assessed by national regulators (QAA), national assessment (REF and TEF), and national league tables. There is nothing at all wrong with universities having such global and national ambitions, but I wonder if the regional connection that formed the justification for founding many of our universities is now being overlooked.
I recognise that most universities have links with their Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and local businesses, and most engage in some form of outreach activities, but is advancing the learning and knowledge of their local region seen as central to their mission and strategy? How many of our universities see this as on a par with their work on international competitiveness and national recruitment? If they had, might some of the fissures we saw emerge during the referendum campaign have been avoided?
Many institutions will point to the fact that they do have local and regional commitments, but Brexit has demonstrated the failure to win the hearts and minds of the regions was just as much a threat to university income as failing to do well in the REF or the TEF or all the other policy threats to university financial stability . Universities are a massive beneficiary of EU funding, and the failure to win the argument over Brexit will cost the sector a lot of money. Real investment in the wellbeing of local regions might prove to be vital for universities’ continued political good will and funding prospects going forward.
The second responsibility that universities should grasp to mend our divided society is their public sector equality duty: to eliminate unlawful discrimination, advance equality of opportunity, and to foster good relations between different groups in society. When this was first introduced in 1999 as the race equality duty in the aftermath of the Stephen Lawrence murder and the MacPherson Report, I remember feeling annoyed that universities were being held responsible for wider problems with society. But Brexit has clearly shown us that that failing to tackle such problems has cost universities dearly. Addressing them is no longer simply a matter of statutory compliance: it is also a matter of self-interest. Whilst great efforts have been made to make access to university fairer and to widen participation, a great deal more work needs to be done, perhaps more urgently than ever. In research, understanding and tackling social inequalities should in itself be seen as a form of outreach and civic engagement.
Beyond Britain itself, the Brexit vote has revealed how our global bonds have also been broken. On issues such as the global refugee crisis, international terrorism, and aid for developing countries, much of our country view the world’s problems as at best an irrelevance and at worst a threat. Our influence on the world stage is now diminished. It is thus now more important than ever than our universities continue with their internationalism efforts and global outreach, but find new ways to directly connect it to their localities. Universities can rebuild bridges between British regions and the wider world, but only with a conscious effort: it will not happen by osmosis.
Universities’ policy response to Brexit must therefore be mindful of three things. Now more than ever, universities need to be accessible, relevant, and trusted. Accessible so that local communities feel connected, feel that the university is part of them and a place for them, not just a place for other people; relevant so that people feel the impact of the university in a positive way and a force for good in their own lives; and finally trusted in that these communities feel that the university has their interests at heart. If universities can continue to demonstrate these attributes, I believe we are ideally placed to help put our fractured society together again.