You probably remember exactly where you were when you heard the result of the Brexit referendum. I was in Germany on June 24 when the news broke about Britain's decision to leave the EU. I spent the day with many of my peers from other universities and our mood was sombre. We feared for the future of research funding, staff and student mobility and international scholarly collaboration.
As disappointing as I find Britain's self-exclusion, it is important to remember that over the centuries, academic institutions have survived upheavals and crises. Many collaborated across borders long before the formation of the EU member states. The University of Pisa, for instance, was established in 1343, but had its renaissance in the 17th century when Pisa was ruled from Florence by the Medicis. Like post-colonial Britain, post-colonial Pisa was a great centre of learning and just as battered by controversy. In seventeenth century Europe, heliocentrism was as divisive as Britain's membership of the EU. When Galileo Galilei, that eminent Pisan, was called before the Roman Inquisition for supporting Copernicus' theory that the earth moves round the sun rather than vice versa, he had to promise to 'abjure, curse and detest' the heresy. Deep seated religious beliefs held more sway than evidence in Pisa.
Similarly, throughout the Brexit debate, feelings trumped facts, triggering strong emotional responses. There was the oft-cited argument that leaving Europe would mean that the British people would 'get their identity back' yet no-one explained what that truly meant. Most of us have multiple identities so there is nothing daunting being both British and European. In addition, many felt disenfranchised and ousted by immigrants who, they perceived, were taking their jobs. Misconceptions about Brussels' bureaucracy and democracy played a pivotal role in in-out decisions. Few in the UK understood that the rules, regulations and red tape of Brussels are actually considerably smaller than that of say, a town like Lancaster. Nor did many appreciate that EU decisions are made by the Council of Europe, constituted by the member nations and their elected representatives. It's true that negotiations in the Council and the management of the Commission are complex - but no more so than most political processes.
Universities in the UK lobbied hard to remain, pointing to the benefits of research funding and staff and student mobility. Already there are signs of pressure on collaborative research. Many British institutions profit from EU initiatives such as the Erasmus scheme, which helps students gain international experience, and Marie Curie grants, which allow staff to spend time working abroad. They also benefit from the freedom to recruit EU nationals as staff. All this could be hard to replace.
For a small regional and increasingly internationalised university like Bath Spa University, the challenges are different. In April I outlined what I consider to be two key risks for the University: leaving Europe and increased competition from private providers. The potential loss of international and EU students as a result of withdrawal could not only damage our funding and income but also be detrimental to British students who would lose cultural capital gained from studying with overseas students. Although still to be scrutinised at committee stage, the plans within the Government's Higher Education bill to fast-track entry for private university providers could also have a negative impact. I see these threats as a recipe for a retreat to a little England and a much narrower experience for our students.
Leaving Europe will make globalisation even more critical for the University. Our students work in the creative industries - a highly globalised field. International networks can enhance students' chances of finding work. A recent study commissioned by the International Policy Network of Universities UK, Gone International (2016) showed that international mobility, such as study or placements abroad, transformed the employment prospects of disadvantaged students.
I mourn the exit from the European Union, a brave and visionary transnational polity. Galileo having abjured the heliocentric heresy is said to have muttered beneath his breath 'and yet it moves'. I now mutter that we should have stayed. But Britain has voted, the result is decisive and we must therefore work out how we can thrive and grow outside the EU. I believe that rather than shrinking, the solution lies in finding a new, inclusive globalisation that all can accept.Suggest a correction