Will we stay or will we go?
It has become a bit of a cliché to quote Harold Wilson’s remark that “a week is a long time in politics”. But we are now at the beginning of what might be the longest week in British politics for a generation. Approaching the end of what has been an interminably long referendum campaign, the vote on our membership of the EU is finally being held on Thursday. The only consensus among commentators, campaigners and voters appears to be that the whole episode has been ugly, crass and uncivilised, debasing our politics and embarrassing reasonable people everywhere.
That sentiment can only be more deeply felt after the tragic murder of Jo Cox MP last Thursday. The popular MP was a rising star from the 2015 intake, a former campaigner and top policy wonk at Oxfam; she had also been highly vocal in the campaign for Britain to remain in the EU. Her death has confirmed what many - particularly those involved in higher education - have feared: that something vicious has infected our public life and that the referendum campaign has intensified the spread.
The campaigns have been suspended since Thursday, and as they now resume, we’re promised a more civilised tone. With due respect to correlation-not-equating-to-causation, it seems hard not to see parallels between the cynicism and hostility directed at politicians and the angry suspicion directed at “so-called-experts” during this referendum campaign. The prevailing discourse appears to have been all about the “self-interest of elites” who do not deserve public trust and in some cases, are outright enemies of democracy. Politicians, journalists, economists, scientists, academics, policy wonks and civil servants all appear in the firing line.
Facts and evidence are being treated with suspicion and the people that present them are derided. The contribution of universities to our public life has never seemed more vital.
And so looking ahead to the possible outcomes of this week’s vote, we can be sure of one thing: this concerning trend will not end. In fact, it is possible to see a number of scenarios where it may intensify, particularly if the result is close. This, unfortunately, will frame the future of our universities, education sector and wider polity. At Wonkhe, we pledge that whatever the outcome, we at least can continue to be a home to reasoned debate, polite disagreement, and continued good faith in knowledge, expertise and wisdom. We also have faith in universities’ capacity to do the same.
On the site this morning, Martin McQuillan argues that in this post-fact environment, the events of the last week have shown us that we need universities now more than ever.
On Friday following the death of Jo Cox, Mark's editorial was Universities have a responsibility to drive us to a better world.
After several polls pointing towards a Leave victory last week, new polls released over the weekend are showing a small swing back towards Remain, but the contest remains a dead heat. So what's next?
If it’s Remain
Even if Remain wins, the Europe question is unlikely to be completely settled. The Leave campaign will undoubtedly cry foul play, particularly over the interventions of the Treasury and the Bank of England earlier in the campaign. Over 100 Leave-backing Tory MPs will be angry and politically bereft, and so there is a real risk that the small Conservative majority could be practically void. It has been widely reported that the Prime Minister is planning a ‘reconciliation reshuffle’ as early as next week, and it is likely that some ministers who have power over higher education could change.
George Osborne may be sacrificed to appease Brexiters after a series of Treasury blunders pre-referendum and his many controversial contributions during the campaign. There are also rumours that Sajid Javid may be at risk in BIS. Jo Johnson would likely wish to see through his university reforms, but may have to be moved out of necessity if Cameron is left struggling to get the right balance of Remainers and Leavers across his government. For his part, Cameron will only have two years left at most, and cabinet ministers will begin manoeuvres for the coming leadership election.
A recent article on Conservative Home suggested that Boris Johnson will have to occupy one of the great offices of state, the most likely being the Home Office. Any change there might mean a new approach to international students, but this will also be influenced by whatever is deemed the best strategy to placate anti-immigration Leave campaigners. Boris has previously criticised the current government’s approach to international students, but he has also shown his willingness to change his positions for the sake of political opportunism. Against a backdrop of political turbulence, the Higher Education and Research Bill may have its second reading before the summer recess begins on 21st July.
A Remain vote, particularly a close one, may not mean that we are done with plebiscites on Europe. The European Union Act 2011 makes provision for a referendum to be held on any future amendments to EU treaties that would enlarge EU powers or change decision-making procedures in the European Council. Even before Britain’s decision to renegotiate its terms of membership, many noted the need for fundamental reform of the EU to account for the need to better integrate the Eurozone while allowing for the relative autonomy of those countries outside it. If and when this happens, there will almost certainly need to be another referendum on the resulting treaty in the UK, particularly if the Conservatives remain in government.
I’m sure we will all relish the prospect.
If it’s Leave
Predicting the political and policy chaos in the event of a Leave vote is difficult. The formal passing of a decision to exit will be the duty of Parliament and that will trigger the famous Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which will give the government two years to negotiate our terms of exit. Nobody knows how that might pan out, although the triggering of Article 50 leaves it up to the other 27 nations of the Union to determine the terms. The main issue at hand here will be the future of the 3 million EU citizens in the UK and the 2 million UK citizens in the EU - both of which include a huge number of students. A favourable deal is unlikely.
It is important to note that negotiating our divorce is an entirely separate process to negotiating a new trading and diplomatic relationship with the EU. The UK will also have to redesign its trading relationships with other countries who had previously gained access to our markets via the EU. Frankly, no one knows how long all this will take to resolve.
Nonetheless, there are some things that are nearly certain. Regardless of whether David Cameron remains in power, the government’s already relatively limited legislative agenda (which includes the Higher Education and Research Bill) will at least be delayed if not scrapped entirely. BIS will play a critical role in negotiating Britain's exit from the EU and is already short on time and capacity.
A new Prime Minister will be likely within six months who will bring in a new top team. While there are more Tory MPs for remaining than leaving, there will be a Brexiter on the leadership ballot, and they are likely to win in a vote of Conservative members where there is a majority for Leave. Boris Johnson or Michael Gove look to be in strong positions on that front. Theresa May, a reluctant Remainer, has made an effort to stay out of the ‘blue-on-blue action’ - perhaps she could be the compromise candidate.
Behind all this, there are rumours abound of a Parliamentary Labour Party coup against Jeremy Corbyn as soon as a Leave result is announced, following his perceived lacklustre support for staying in the EU. A new Tory leader might also seek their own mandate and call a general election this Autumn or in the Spring. At which point, all political speculation becomes futile...
But for HE, if it’s a Leave vote, the sector will need to move quickly to identify a list of priority issues to be protected in the exit negotiations. The government will be inundated by pressure groups and sharp-elbowed lobbyists seeking to prioritise their interests. This might mean that the sector’s prominent campaigning on the importance of the EU to research funding and collaboration may not have gone to waste. The question of immigration will be critical, as will EU students’ ability to continue to study in the UK on favourable funding terms. The sector will probably need to radically step up its presence in Brussels to lobby for a good deal with the European higher education community on its own terms.
The wider economic result will also directly impact universities. If financial markets decide to desert Sterling, then there will be at least a brief period of severe economic pain. One potential plus side is that export services such as higher education will be more competitive internationally, though this may be little consolation if a new government is even more hostile to international students than the previous one and EU students no longer have easy access to UK HE. With imports being more expensive, there will be greater inflation, and so the sector’s pursuit of the TEF-linked inflationary rise in fees would have added bite. The Bank of England will likely have to do what it has avoided for nearly a decade and raise interest rates. This could cause an immediate crisis in the housing market and problems for institutions relying on aggressively leveraged borrowing.