Narratives on higher education: An exit from engagement

Was there a civic failure by universities prior to the EU referendum, and in the immediate aftermath?

Where there was a strong vote to leave the EU, could universities have done more to explain the consequences of the damage to them and their communities? Some would say that direct advice from employers about the impact to their employees made no difference. Some blame charity law. And anyway, universities would have been put into the grouping excoriated by Michael Gove – that we had had enough of experts.

Antipathy towards universities had been growing in towns and cities in England where there was angst that they were left behind, dislocated from their traditional customs of work and habitat over the long term. But universities could have made a strong case before the referendum for remaining in the EU, especially where universities are important in supporting the local economy and manufacturing. Perhaps this neglect of the civic and public was out of misplaced optimism over the referendum outcome. Perhaps it was the pusillanimous focus on self-interest and not the common good.

They did get it wrong

The misunderstanding that brought about the result could be outlined as follows: the effects of fiscal austerity on public services is in effect a result of too much demand on services by immigrants; the loss of manufacturing as a Brussels plot; an existential cry by the proletariat turned precariat reduced by a deeper alienation of helplessness, as representation is reduced to the point of being invisible; a lack of understanding about the world with the strange behaviour of clutching at an imperial past and a misplaced nostalgia – we won the war standing alone, and we can do it again.

The lumpenised proletariat reaction appears almost measured against the paradox of the well-educated and privileged elite who portrayed themselves as enemies of the elite. There should be no charge of hypocrisy against that elite that forged the Brexit result. It was deceit for gain. There should be, however, a charge against those who ‘educated’ them. Did all those firsts and upper seconds in PPE really produce this outcome?

Universities able to exist with profound misunderstanding flowing around them ought to cause some concern, even of conscience, that a contribution to the outcome was neglect. Universities have public duties to help us to understand the world, and ought to acknowledge where there are dangers of a mass lack of understanding of it. Perhaps marketisation means that keeping away from controversy is advantageous. But it could be self-defeating when the lineaments of a critical structural failure in the body politic emerge, and the universities do little but raise their voices about themselves.

Loss

The hard sciences are big and expensive, and UK universities have been the big hitters for gaining research funding. But the allocation of funding from Europe for research has been to a small and elite section of universities. The top ten universities gained half the funding, and a long tail of 100 gained the rest. Was our culture of institutional competitiveness unhelpful in making a sector-wide case for remaining in the EU?

The extent of the interconnectedness of research, mobility of staff and students across Europe shows that the deeper and more intimate the relationships are, then the more damaging the rupture with Europe will be. Scientific papers are more likely to be collaborative across institutions and countries. But funding won by UK universities in competitive bidding cannot can be compensated by UK funding. Funding cannot overcome the isolationism which will be a fait accomplis of Brexit. That complexity and range of research funding from Europe was never expressed.

Away from research, several universities have made successful bids for European infrastructure funding – with multiplier impacts on local businesses, employment and capital investment for the locality for the long term. This was a commitment to the public utility of a university in a significantly deprived area. But the impact of funding on local economies was never made clear, other than the odd EU logo stuck on a building site. The disproportionate EU support in Wales for infrastructural projects had no impact on the final outcome – suggesting that an intervention in this political maelstrom might instead have made a difference.

Time to put things right

There is an irony that UK universities have signed up to and continue to add their names to the Magna Charta Universitatum which was drafted and agreed at Bologna University on the millennium of its existence. The Charta states on the subject of research collaboration: “Universities – particularly in Europe – regard the mutual exchange of information and documentation and frequent joint projects for the advancement of learning as essential to the steady progress of knowledge”.

Whatever the outcome of negotiations with the EU on the UK’s exit, there will be a role for universities to play: to overcome bigotry, ignorance, fear, anxieties about the future and the importance of the well-being of the community that surrounds them. Whether they choose to play that role is another question.

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