A brave new world
We woke up on Friday morning to a different world. We’re leaving the European Union, our political system is in turmoil, and the economy has taken a beating. The vote to leave is just the beginning of a complete reconfiguration of our political and economic systems - a preview of which we started to see over the weekend, but which could take years to stabilise.
The profound sense of loss felt by the 48% who voted Remain is palpable. The anger at the politicians who lied to get us here may never fully fade. It cannot be denied that this is a difficult and desultory time for many in UK higher education.
In spite of all this, it is essential that the sector gets to work straight away to ensure the best is made of our impending exit, whatever the timetable agreed between Whitehall and Brussels. There is a great deal to be done on many fronts: managing the sector’s role in negotiations for an exit, understanding the longer-term adjustments required, and acting upon the lessons we have learned from the new political climate. We’re embarking on a journey without fully knowing the destination and it will take all the collective expertise, wisdom and leadership that the sector can muster.
The first imperative is to resist the urge to sink either into despair or panic. We also have to do more than just hope to avoid the worst effects of Brexit - the sector must work to find the opportunities in our new political reality. Read: It (probably) won’t be that bad.
It is important that there is clarity about the process for the UK leaving the EU. Beyond the wrangling over when Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty is to be triggered, the real intrigue will begin afterwards. The Article will be enacted when the Prime Minister either writes a letter to the President of the European Council or when the PM makes a formal, minuted statement of Britain’s decision at a meeting of the Council. Negotiations will then begin between the UK government and the European Commission. The 27 remaining EU states and the European Parliament have considerable influence: the 27 states must unanimously approve the withdrawal agreement, and the Parliament can veto it by a simple majority. On the other side, the devolved UK governments and the Mayor of London have announced that they wish to have influence over the UK’s negotiating team.
A significant point to note for the sector is that the process of reaching a withdrawal agreement, and the process of agreeing a new trading, economic and legal relationship are separate. Both will need to take account of each other, but while the withdrawal agreement must be agreed within two years, agreements with the EU beyond that can, and probably will, take much longer. In turn, negotiations for trading relationships for the rest of the world will have to wait until the withdrawal agreement is finalised and probably have to wait until a new arrangement with the EU is agreed. The lesson for the sector is that a huge amount is up for grabs in determining our ongoing relationship with the EU and with the rest of the world. It will require the sector’s engagement with whoever is leading negotiations in Britain and also serious and direct engagement with the European Commission, the other 27 member states, and higher education institutions across the world.
One big issue that will need to be settled in the divorce arrangements is the future of the 3 million EU citizens living in the UK, and the 2 million UK citizens living in the EU. The latter includes 125,000 students and 30,000 academic staff. To quote a report from the House of Lords’ European Union Committee: “One of the most complex aspects of the negotiations would be deciding which rights would qualify as ‘acquired rights’, and putting in place transitional provisions for individuals and companies whose rights might be phased out over time.”
Of particular interest here is Scotland, where EU students are 8.9% of the total, compared to 5.2% in England. Nicola Sturgeon has announced her intention to try and keep Scotland in the EU by any means, including another independence vote: polls over the weekend suggest support for independence has surged since Thursday. We have our first look at which universities are most exposed to EU student recruitment.
Beyond this, there are unknown issues that will be forgotten or overlooked by the macro-political narrative which is capturing all our attention. A political and leadership vacuum emerged over the weekend. The Chancellor went AWOL over the weekend, as indeed did the leaders of the Vote Leave campaign. The Prime Minister is a lame duck, and the leader of the Labour Party is in the midst of an attempted coup. The Secretary of State with responsibility for universities, science and innovation wrote about needing to make the best of Brexit without mentioning universities or science at all. The markets are expected to perform poorly on opening this morning. It’s the most unstable political situation for the UK in living memory.
An immense challenge is waiting to be grasped by those who care about higher education: yes, it’s going to hurt in the short-term, but the wounds might heal quicker than expected. It is up to the higher education sector to seek out these opportunities to minimise the pain by being present in Whitehall, Holyrood, the Senedd and Stormont. Most importantly of all, the sector needs to seriously ramp up its own collective presence in Brussels so that it has the capacity for direct negotiations with European political, educational and economic institutions.
On the site, David Morris gives a brief overview of the process of leaving and the need for wonks and experts at every stage. For more detail, we also recommend the House of Lords European Union Committee report from April, and the second half of a lecture from Professor Michael Dougan of the University of Liverpool.
There is already doubt about the future of the Higher Education and Research Bill. The official line is that it’s ‘business as usual’ and that the government intends to implement the legislation outlined in the Queen’s speech. It has been suggested that the Bill could be a useful unifying measure for the parliamentary Conservative Party though it’s hard to see how it could do anything more than paper over some of the huge new divides in the party.
It is difficult to see how the political will could be mustered to push the Bill (or any legislation) through both Houses before a new Prime Minister is chosen in the autumn. It had been assumed that it would take until next spring for the legislation to reach Royal Assent. The new PM and new government could choose to abandon the old legislative agenda in light of new Brexit-related priorities, or call a general election which would have the same effect of resetting the legislative clock.
BIS’s ability to cope with implementing the White Paper’s proposals may also be dependent on its role in helping to manage Brexit negotiations and policymaking. The department is expected to play a major role in the process. For now, there is a difference of opinion about the Bill’s prospects for survival: we can only wait and see. In the scale of problems now facing the country, reorganising higher education might seem like a very low priority.
It will take some time to understand the full implications of Brexit on the wider national, European and world economies, and how in turn the sector will be affected. The policy responses to the threatened recession, credit downgrade and rising unemployment will have a major impact on exactly how universities will weather the turbulence. We don’t know for how long the uncertainty will last: at least until the UK’s negotiations under Article 50 are complete, we believe, but perhaps much longer.
There will be much to play for, and the sector could - should - make its case for continued (redoubled?) investment as well as ensuring the conditions for success. While we have a public loan system, we need a government able to borrow to fund it. Our universities need capital investment through grants or loans. As the sector has spent the last few years increasing borrowing, so it must now weather the worst financial storm imaginable short of a 2008-style banking collapse. The sector’s triple reliance on institutional, government and student debt - debt which is reliant on stability above all else - has opened it up to very real risks in an uncertain political and economic environment.
On Wonkhe, Ant Bagshaw outlines some of the key battle lines: rather than shrink away in panic, the sector needs to confront these issues and make its case for financial sustainability.
Project Reflection: sorrow and regret
Amidst all this, Remain voters have been quick to begin the long process of reflection. Vice chancellors have issued a call to “fight Brexit anti-intellectualism”, though perhaps the first logical step would be to understand why it has come about in the first place. Professor Rob Ford, an expert on the rise of UKIP and the new populism, has pointed out the new cruel irony: staff and students in higher education are now feeling exactly how many UKIP and Leave supporters have felt for many years: disenfranchised. We are facing a drastic social and political change imposed on us by people whose values we don’t share or understand.
On Wonkhe, Martin McQuillan has written how “universities are now on the losing side of a culture war”, and David Morris has written on why “higher education and higher educators will find themselves firmly on one side of a new political realignment”.