The UK’s decision to abandon Europe, which is what leaving the European Union amounts to, has come as a shock – not least in the UK where many people who voted ‘out’ never expected to win.
Essentially this was a protest vote against immigration, tinged with nationalism and even racism, and austerity, a long delayed but inevitable reaction against the inequalities generated by neoliberal capitalism. The details of the UK’s relationship with the EU as a member state were not particularly important in what was a bad-tempered and nasty referendum campaign. In effect the EU became a whipping boy for larger discontents.
But the die is now cast, even though all the evidence suggests that the great majority of staff and students in universities voted to remain in the EU. There is probably no way back – for England; Scotland is now likely to seek independence and to stay in the EU so breaking up a 300-year-old Union (which paradoxically created the ‘Great Britain’ of which nationalists are so proud). The consequences for UK higher education will be very significant – and almost entirely damaging. One of the most damaging is that the ‘market’ model of higher education developed in England (again not in Scotland) over the past decade will now go unchallenged there by a more general European model that stresses the ‘social dimension’. Other European governments may also miss the entrepreneurial goad that the English model offered to fight the bureaucratic inertia of their own systems. So both sides will be losers.
Of course, the UK higher education system will not float off into the mid-Atlantic. It is inescapably, and beneficially, part of what the 17th-century English poet John Donne called the ‘main’ in a resonantly Shakespearean word. Oxford and Cambridge are among Europe’s oldest, and still most successful, universities. Membership or not of the EU cannot change that. It is worth emphasising that the UK will remain a partner in the Bologna Process, which is an inter-governmental as opposed to an EU process, despite the prominence of European Commission officials. The UK will still be part of the European Higher Education Area.
Nor will the desire of academic staff and researchers in UK higher education to collaborate with their colleagues in other European universities be diminished. The UK has always played a prominent, and positive, role in successive Framework Programmes for Research and Technological Development. As Framework funding is distributed on scientific merit rather than through national quotas, the UK, because it has so many world-class universities, has received more than its ‘share’. The fear that this funding would be lost was one factor in the near-unanimous support for the EU among British scientists.
To be honest, UK universities have not been as enthusiastic about Erasmus and other student mobility programmes. These flows are often perceived to be unbalanced with more students coming to the UK from other European countries than UK students moving to the continent. This is attributed, arrogantly perhaps, to the high academic reputation of UK universities as well as the obvious attractions of studying in an Anglophone country against the background of the new global economy. The British also blamed their own comparative lack of facility in other languages, itself the other side of the coin to the increasing acceptance of English as global lingua franca – although just as important perhaps has been the shorter three-year bachelor’s degree (in England at any rate), which simply leaves less time for mobility.
However, whatever the causes, this UK reticence about student exchanges within Europe can only increase with departure from the EU. Also, new barriers are likely to be created that will discourage other European students from studying in the UK. Tuition fees will increase, because they will no longer be treated on the same basis as UK students (although, to be realistic, fees in English higher education are already very high, higher on average even than in the US). They may also face new immigration barriers, as a post-Brexit UK Government struggles to appease those who voted to leave the EU by reducing headline immigration totals. It is also important to remember that Erasmus and other mobility programmes have been among the most concrete, and most hopeful, expressions of the wider European project. Young people in the UK may have voted to remain but their votes were overwhelmed by their more insular parents and grandparents.
Finally, the impact of Brexit on the UK’s wider role in international education should not be underestimated. One of the world’s most popular destinations for international students, the UK has always played a leading role in the internationalisation of higher education – for good reasons (increasing global understanding and strengthening global communities of scholars and researchers) and also not-so-good reasons (enjoying the extra income generated by the fees paid by international students). But it is naive to believe that the message sent by Brexit will not resound round the world. It will be heard in China and across East and South Asia, and also across the Atlantic. And, of course, a post-Brexit UK Government will put up more barriers to immigration. Two results can be predicted. First, the UK’s share of international students will decline, especially if other European countries fill any gap by offering more English-language and low-fee programmes. The second is that the UK’s approach to internationalisation will become (even) more aggressively ‘commercial’, unmitigated by more idealistic motives.
One final thought. Will English continue to be (the rest of) Europe’s common language? Probably yes, because its dominance arises from the fact that it is the common language of world business – and, of course, the language spoken in the US, the world’s only superpower since the collapse of the Soviet Union and (still) the world’s largest economy (and most significant source of popular culture). But the UK’s membership of the EU probably contributed to its acceptance across the rest of Europe, to the sometimes intense irritation of Francophones. One small Anglophone country, Ireland, even if it is shortly joined by another, Scotland, cannot achieve the same attractive effects. So, although the position of English as a lingua franca may not be seriously dented, interesting questions about linguistic diversity may now be asked – perhaps partly as a dark and worrying reassertion of nationalist agendas but also as a positive reminder of the role played by the recognition of ‘difference’ in building global understanding and solidarity.