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Conservative Party Conference 2016: The Day of the Brexiteers

As the Conservative Party Conference draws to a close in Birmingham, Martin McQuillan considers a torrid few days for universities - as the party spent a week lining up a nightmare vision for before and after Brexit.
This article is more than 7 years old

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

John Wyndham was born in Birmingham. His most famous novel, The Day of the Triffids, is about waking up one morning to find that the world has utterly changed, civilisation has collapsed and in its place, voracious vegetables are devouring everything in their path.

This is how many in higher education felt on June 24th following the result of the referendum on membership of the European Union. Consequently, when the university sector attended the Conservative Party conference in Wyndham’s hometown this week, they hoped for news of the sunny uplands of Brexit but feared dark days in the Black Country.

The pessimists were not to be disappointed. The conference began with an announcement by Prime Minister Theresa May that she planned to invoke Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon in March 2017, firing the starting pistol on a possible two-year negotiation of Britain’s exit from the EU. Sterling immediately tanked and all over the country vice chancellors wondered if they would now be considered in the group Theresa May calls those “who are just about managing”.

The International Conference Centre that hosted the gathering was built with £50million of EU funding. At the south entrance, there is a giant obelisk marking the day it was opened by President of the European Commission Jacques Delors. It would seem this Brexit cabinet are significant EU subsidy junkies. Putting a date on Article 50 means that previous government promises to cover the cost of EU funded research projects will only last until we are in fact due to leave the EU.

The Prime Minister said that she would introduce a Great Repeal Act that would overturn the 1972 European Communities Act and translate all EU law into UK law the moment Britain left the bloc. This all sounded suitably grand for the city of Joseph Chamberlain, if meaningless because EU law already is UK law: that is the point of all this.

However, it transpired over press briefings that what this actually meant was that the Bill would be an Enabling Act that would give the executive the power to delete laws (and so rights) at will without recourse to parliament after Brexit. Whatever the EU referendum was really about, surely no one voted Leave to hand the Falangist wing of the Conservative Party such power?

All of this is in the name of respecting democracy. Throughout the week ministers insisted that the British people had sent a clear message. It’s clear in the strictly mathematical sense that 52% is a bigger number than 48%.

What this seems to mean is that a Prime Minister who no one voted for, not even the membership of the Conservative Party, can use someone else’s parliamentary majority of 12, granted for an entirely different purpose, to do the exact opposite, and make a bid for unfettered executive power.

We then got an inkling of what Brexit might really mean, when Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Andrea Leadsom used her speech to conference to express her wish that when all the migrant labourers were expelled, young Britons would take up fruit picking. Once they have had their EU passports removed future students can look forward to summers picking raspberries in Norfolk.

That is handy because this week the Department of International Trade, run by disgraced former cabinet minister Liam Fox, told us that “France needs high quality, innovative British jams and marmalades”. Quite why the French would want to replace Bonne Maman apricot confiture with Hartley’s fruits of the forest sludge is not clear. But DEFRA and the DIT are to be commended for their joined up thinking.

‘Jam tomorrow’ sounds like a good government catchphrase for the next ten years of self-inflicted economic ruin. We also heard from Andrea Leadsom about the company who are selling English countryside air to China at £80 a bottle. In the past they might have been prosecuted for fraud, now they are a government-backed metaphor for the UK economy.

Just as we were coming to terms with the audacity of Theresa May’s coup and the innovation of Liam Fox’s preserves, Tuesday brought a Brexit bombshell for the HE sector. Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, announced that there would be a consultation on “medium-term reform of study route immigration”. What this meant was that in the future the government want to “tailor” student visas “to the quality of course and the quality of the educational institution”.

She said, “the current system allows all students, irrespective of their talents and the university’s quality, favourable employment prospects when they stop studying…. We need to look at whether this one size fits all approach really is right for the hundreds of different universities, providing thousands of different courses across the country. And we need to look at whether this generous offer for all universities is really adding value to our economy”. Before Tuesday Amber Rudd was best known as a campaigner to Remain in the EU.

By ‘favourable employment prospects’ she means securing a job with a £20,800 p.a. salary within four months of graduation or face deportation. It does not take a professor of Wonkology to work out what this means.

Universities had become resigned to losing the evidence-based argument on the educational and economic benefits of international students, but this latest twist is something from Wyndham’s apocalyptic imagination. On international students, we have moved from The Midwich Cuckoos to The Village of the Damned.

Mere minutes before the Home Secretary’s announcement, the universities minister, Jo Johnson, had been sitting quietly in a Million+/NUS/Conservative Home event on ‘Reform or Revolution?’ in higher education. He had offered the speculation that while on the whole university teaching was indeed excellent, the role of the TEF was to help universities “identify patchiness” and take corrective action.

Inspirational as this vision of higher education was, it belied no signs of what was about to unfold. He explicitly repeated the mantra of “long-term government policy” that “there is no cap on international students”. If the Home Office is now looking for a way to identify the “best” universities and courses, Jo Johnson has just handed them the weapon of mass discrimination.

Last week the technical consultation on the TEF had proposed that universities would be graded Gold, Silver or Bronze based on their performance against benchmarks in the Teaching Excellence Framework. This seemed at the time to be the result of a civil servant having been left in the office by themselves during the Rio Olympics.

It now looks as if Gold will earn you the right to recruit international students and anything else is a tin medal. The proposed grading would not take meaningful effect until the subject specific TEF in 2019, the same time as Theresa May now hopes to have completed Brexit.

A cynical HE observer might wonder whether any particular mission group had lobbied for this policy over the summer months. If it transpires that this is the case, then the artificial divisions within our university system and our league table culture have surely jumped the shark, and those responsible should be forever considered in the category of the unforgivable for reducing a world-leading university sector to a Darwinian race towards a racist inferno.

To the categories of Gold, Silver and Bronze, we will have to add Amber, as the cut-off point between being granted a license to recruit international students or not. One suspects that Jo Johnson knew nothing of what was about to be announced, which tells us a great deal about the priority universities are given in this new government.

This is not ‘addressing the legitimate concerns’ of communities impacted by immigration; this is cheap dog whistle politics that will damage our universities’ reputation in the world beyond repair, including those who benefit most from it.

How will this be reported in the Indian press? ‘UK bans foreign students’ or ‘Teaching quality assessment to discriminate study visa routes’? Call a spade a spade: this is racism compounded by class snobbery, killing the economy and risking much that is good about British culture.

If this hard Brexit measure comes to pass, it will mean on average between 15 to 20% budget cuts for any university not allowed to recruit international students, and cost the UK economy a big slice of the £14bn that international students contribute to Britain.

The policy would render much of the UK’s taught postgraduate provision untenable. In this year of US Presidential elections, directors of policy in British universities will always remember where they were when they got the 3 pm call regarding the Home Secretary’s speech about what will hereafter be known as ‘Ruddy Hell’.

Later in the day the comprehensive-schooled Secretary State for Education, Justine Greening, offered a limp defence of a Grammar Schools policy she knew nothing about a fortnight ago. It looked less like a conference speech and more like a hostage video. Carolyn Fairbairn, the Director General of the CBI, later joined the Minister on stage.

However, her Deputy Josh Hardie seemed not to have read the memo on the clear message sent by the British people but a briefing paper on international students. He released a statement from the CBI saying “the UK’s universities are a crown jewel in supporting innovation, growth and skills development. Many courses are sustained here in the UK because we can attract students and faculty from around the world. The government must tread carefully on any changes to student immigration to make sure we don’t undermine this critical sector for national prosperity”.

We are told that Brexit represents a global opportunity for UK trade. However, this policy on international students undermines one of our most successful export industries and takes an axe to the knowledge economy.

More importantly, it is profoundly detrimental to the core values of our universities, which have opened their doors to educate the world. A British education is more highly sought after than innovative jam. It is an ignorant, unprecedented, undemocratic, un-British policy that the sector must resist with every resource at its disposal from Oxford to London Met, from Aberdeen to Kent.

One seriously wonders if Jo Johnson is considering his position.

The only upside to this xenophobic jamboree was the news from Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, that places for medical students would increase by 25% as ‘homegrown’ doctors replaced all those foreigners who have been selfishly saving our lives up until now.

Presumably, that means 25% more medical schools because currently our courses to train doctors are full, capped by the limits of facilities, prior attainment and professional regulation. As un-costed, conference promises go, this is a whopper. Equally, the offer to bright A-Level students in an age of grade deflation to take on £54,000 worth of debt to work every weekend in a crumbling NHS is hardly an attractive one.

By the time Theresa May took the stage to close the conference on Wednesday, there was little more a punch-drunk sector could take. It was the coronation of a sovereign without a mandate, the Gloriana on new Brexit Britain. Her cabinet having constituted a dog whistle orchestra in the days before, she was able to dial down the rhetoric in her own speech. She spoke about being the party of the workers and reprieved her pitch first made on the doorstep on Downing St in July about helping the left behind and founding the new meritocracy. However, in her policy platform, it would seem that she is not so much making a play for Labour but for UKIP voters.

Theresa May’s first conference as leader ironically saw the return of what she once called ‘the nasty party’, deep blue in Brexit tooth and claw. Despite what one thinks of the armed struggle of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell or the comedy goldmine that is the parliamentary Labour Party, on this showing in Birmingham, there is no argument that can be made that says they would run the country any worse than Theresa May’s Brexit pirates.

One might long for rational, evidence-based policy-making and a competent party apparatus to translate effective parliamentary opposition into well-managed government, but we are where we are: through the looking glass. When one exits a political conference season feeling nostalgic for Ed Miliband, it is a sign of the considerable depths to which we as a nation have sunk.

This government is trying to square more circles than Euclid. Its agenda is simply impossible to deliver on without breaking the country. If Labour through their own folly spends the following ten years in opposition then the next government to follow the Brexiteers will surely be drawn from the young people who sat in seminars at Momentum’s alternative conference in Liverpool last week.

They will be in their 30s by then. They will have grown up in an epoch of intolerant chauvinism and economic recklessness, with a deep disdain for universities and learning. Such is the crucible in which we are preparing our future. One hopes they have the imagination and wisdom to find another possible world.

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