During the EU referendum in the UK, disdain for knowledge and expertise was palpable. Conservative MP, Michael Gove, declared that "people in this country have had enough of experts" while Labour MP, Gisela Stuart boasted, "There is only one expert that matters and that's you, the voter." "Anti-intellectualism" has flourished in the UK, Europe and across the pond. The governor of the Bank of England predicted financial crisis, social scientists predicted racial tensions and EU policy pundits predicted a diplomatic own-goal of biblical proportions, but their advice fell on deaf ears. Academics are, by definition, experts in a particular field, but their voices have been virtually absent before and after the Brexit vote.
I am a cardiologist, a researcher and a teacher. On any of these three, I am well-placed to advise, maybe even an expert. However, if you need your bathroom tiling, want to know about mathematics or eighteenth century philosophy, then do not come anywhere near me. Everybody has their forte and honest people recognise their shortcomings and ask for help beyond their comfort zone. We now know that our politicians have, across the board, been dishonest about their knowledge and expertise or lack thereof.
The post-Brexit analysis has been in free flow since last Friday morning, but the most noteworthy lessons are of inequalities in Britain. London and the rest of the UK. North and South. Rich and poor. EU and non-EU. White and non-white. Whitehall and the real world. But one thread runs through all of these grim divisions and that is education and access to education. A man debated my nationality as a British Indian born in Hull with me on Twitter this week, "If a dog is born in a pig sty is the dog a pig?" The fact remains that lack of education or lack of application of that education is associated with this kind of behaviour. The Leave campaign and the media supporting them deliberately moved the debate away from experts and focused on immigration. Without facts, without expertise and without knowledge, it was possible to appeal to base fears. Mis-information is hard to recognise if you missed your educational opportunities. The politicians who took the debate away from the experts and their warnings, should never again be allowed to exclude academics from that conversation because the country's future is now at risk.
Educational and socioeconomic status have been linked to health, wealth and development outcomes for several decades in most countries and the body of evidence could fill a library. Yet, as you progress through primary, secondary and tertiary education, the gaps between the "haves" and the "have-nots" have widened in this country under successive governments. The possibilities and opportunities of education have been side-lined by austerity and rising tuition fees. Schools are obsessed with Oxbridge admission rates and universities with publications and grant funding, rather than their impact local and national communities.
UK universities rank handsomely in the top 100 institutions and part of their success relies upon a long history of collaboration with international partners, adding an estimated £40 billion to GDP. The international students in London alone make a net contribution of £2.3 billion to the economy. The debate about immigration ignored these aspects. In an interconnected world, we have presented ourselves as an island and we should be under no illusions about the reputational damage. Swift, definitive action is needed to make the many students and staff from the EU and beyond feel welcome so that we can continue to foster one of the most productive academic sectors in the world.
"The pen is mightier than the sword" and "knowledge is power" are maxims that have inspired academics for generations to write journal papers, gain grant funding and give lectures. Unfortunately, neither politicians, media nor our population are inside our echo chamber. We must be more powerful with our knowledge and need to use our pens and our voices against the menacing swords which have been presented in the form of the anti-expert movement. In this volatile new world, academics have an opportunity to break down ivory towers and change the status quo. If we want evidence-based policy, nobody is better placed to speak to that evidence and educate the public, because one thing is for certain, we cannot rely on the politicians.