Degrees of separation – how UK universities are set to suffer after Brexit
Contrary to what some members of the government might think, we have never been in more need of expertise
Britain’s universities are star performers. A large part of the country’s “soft power”, they bring in students from all over the world. More than a third of Nobel prize-winners who studied in a foreign country went to a British university. That reputation is a cash bonus for towns such as Oxford, Cambridge, York and Canterbury, not to mention the UK as a whole.
In financial terms, they contribute £2 billion yearly to British GDP and support a million jobs. Prime ministers, presidents, leaders from Turkey and United States to Iceland and the UAE have all studied in British universities. Often, they return home with a deep affection for British people, customs and culture.
But all that is being placed at risk by Brexit. University leaders say that crashing out of the EU in March is “one of the biggest threats” to British universities ever. It’s a reality now, a self-inflicted wound. The Russell Group, representing some top universities, reports postgraduate student enrolment from EU countries fell 9 per cent this academic year, following another 9 per cent drop the previous year. When undergraduates are included, the 2018-19 fall is 3 per cent. A few days ago more than 100 British universities wrote to Members of Parliament warning of “an academic, cultural and scientific setback from which it would take decades to recover,”
I am Chancellor of the University of Kent. As the UK’s European University, it has campuses in Canterbury and Medway, plus study centres in Brussels, Athens, Rome and Paris. Our students and staff come from all over the world – the Middle East, China, India, Malaysia – with big numbers from the EU.
One College Master is French, another is German. We have a strong academic reputation and are investing in a prestigious medical centre, but Brexit has made hugely valued staff and students nervous about the future. Some EU nationals worry that the British government is making them feel less welcome, even though their experience of university life is very positive, blessed with enduring international co-operation and friendships.
Whatever the Brexit-obsessed politicians finally come up with, British universities are already pursuing their own foreign policy. We are reinforcing shared values from the Enlightenment, pursuing facts, research, science, debate, truth. We will always welcome new ideas and find inspiration in staff and students from all over the world, including our close friends in Europe.
But the British government’s shambolic handling of Brexit does not inspire confidence. UK universities planned to gain more than £1 billion in European research funding over two years. But amid Brexit uncertainty, Dame Janet Beer, president of Universities UK, warned that “it is critical that … guarantees are extended” to ensure funding will continue, otherwise planning for world-beating research programmes will be impossible.
From the discovery of penicillin to the Higgs Boson or the world wide web, I’m proud of Brainy Britain’s reputation. We attract top talent from the entire globe, and this inventiveness enriches us and the home countries to which most of our students return.
But among pro-Brexit politicians and activists, some carelessly dismiss the problems that leaving the EU creates. One leading Conservative Brexit politician, Michael Gove, famously claimed that the British people “have had enough of experts.” Others say that many core Brexit supporters never went to university, so don’t care if universities suffer.
These ideas are nonsensical. If Mr Gove or any Brexit supporter falls ill or has toothache, he will need treatment from a university-educated doctor or dentist. He will take legal advice from a university-trained lawyer. And he will wish to live in a country where graduate engineers and architects ensure our buildings do not fall down, our water is clean and electricity is available and reliable.
Knowledge, expertise and science have no international boundaries. They depend upon the sharing of wisdom across borders and cultures. The unpalatable truth is that Brexit itself demonstrates what happens when people without real expertise or knowledge manage a difficult project.
Britain’s transport secretary Chris Grayling has provoked ridicule and outrage for striking a £13 million deal with a start-up company to provide post-Brexit ferry services. That’s because the company has never operated a ferry service and its terms and conditions appear to have been hastily copied from a food delivery company.
The UK’s foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt also invited ridicule when he claimed Britain’s post-Brexit future is “to act as an invisible chain linking together the democracies of the world,” a phrase of incomprehensible and laughable vacuity. Or there is the former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab who appeared confused about how trade works between Britain and France across the English Channel.
All the above had the privilege of attending Oxford or Cambridge, two of the most renowned universities in the world, but their incompetence still demonstrate that true expertise has never been more necessary. That’s why universities are shouting out loudly. We fear that a botched Brexit undermines the very visible chains linking experts and researchers worldwide, and especially across Europe. It would help if politicians would think again about these matters, or in the case of some prominent political leaders, any kind of serious thinking would be truly welcomed.
Gavin Esler is a journalist, television presenter and author
Updated: January 7, 2019 02:47 PM