The EU Referendum and Higher Education

With the EU referendum taking place on Thursday 23rd June, we asked AHUA members to share their reflections on what the EU referendum has meant for them, their institutions and the day-to-day business of universities. Here we present three viewpoints from leaders of different institutions across the UK.

In reflecting on the many and varied commentaries about the potential impacts arising from the EU referendum, including those emanating from universities and HE sector agencies, I am struck by a frequent emphasis on those globally important “macro” themes: security; the influence of the UK in international relations; business and trade; political life; justice and law. Less seems to have been written about what might be described as the social, human, community and local impacts.

I am typing this blog having just returned from a family wedding in Luxembourg so my contribution needs to carry a bias warning that I am part of a thoroughly European family. Two of my relatives have re-located from elsewhere in Europe to study at UK universities and one has only very recently ceased to be a part of our campus community here in Sheffield. This personal perspective gives me pause for thought about the referendum at a much more individual level than the geo-political debates which are characterising much of the discourse. And I wonder in turn about the myriad of personal impacts in our university communities, which might count as some of the most culturally, linguistically and internationally diverse environments in our nations and regions.

How are our EU students and staff feeling as we approach June 23rd? What might be happening at present on our campuses to support their inclusion; or to concern them? The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield (Sir Keith Burnett) has written powerfully of the way in which the university “prides itself on being an international community, one in which we attempt to model the cooperation and respect for difference often sadly missing in our world.” Whatever decision is made on 23rd June, I wonder how we might all be able to contribute to a renewed spirit of welcome, inclusion and support on higher education campuses throughout the UK?

Dr Andrew West, University Secretary, The University of Sheffield      

One of the effects since the announcement of the EU referendum has been that regular correspondence has come across my desk from a variety of organisations, MPs and interested individuals urging the University to take a greater role in ensuring that our students are registered on the electoral roll and requesting information about what actions we were taking to ensure this. Sitting in a marginal constituency at the last election, this kind of request isn’t unfamiliar territory for my university, but it is an interesting reflection on the expectations and assumptions held externally about the social role and obligations of universities, particularly in juxtaposition to the more instrumental view of the role of ‘the Higher Education Provider’ set out in the White Paper.

We have, like most universities across the UK, played our part in encouraging our students to register, facilitating information and communication and promoting the ways in which students may register. Underpinning the concerns expressed by external stakeholders has been that (a) students won’t be motivated to register and (b) that they won’t know how to. But my own experience of our student community makes me think that there may be other issues at play. Our students are both active in expressing opinions and engaging in surveys and referenda. But the way they do this is very different – usually on line and with quick access – often utilising social media such as Twitter and Yik Yak. Where students feel passionate about an issue, they have no problem finding the right websites to establishing referenda or sign petitions online. The reaction from my teenage daughter as she watched me complete my postal vote (a slip in one envelope, then placed into another envelope with another slip) which was ‘why don’t you just vote online?’ told me a lot about her experience of ‘voting’.

Our students at Lancaster have just voted in a Students’ Union referendum on new governing documents – with a turnout well above the quorum required (yes I did say it was about governing documents)! Our students are not apathetic about issues that interest them and they are able to find their way around a website to register and vote. What’s not been obvious so far is that the debate on either side around membership of the EU has sufficiently connected to their concerns and interests to motivate them to care enough to vote.

Nicola Owen, Chief Administrative Officer and Secretary, Lancaster University

While the referendum question to remain or to leave relates to the United Kingdom membership of the European Union, it also has real implications for the union of the United Kingdom itself. It’s not clear that there was great demand for a referendum in the devolved administrations. The challenge to membership seems to arise primarily from the tensions within the Conservative party exacerbated by the rise of UKIP. These are not such significant issues outside England.

Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland all gain from membership of the EU, not least because they contain some of the poorest parts of the EU and benefit from structural funds as a result. Yet even in the devolved administrations that economic logic is not producing universal strength of support to remain in the EU. Wales in particular has a positive net benefit from the EU equated to around £79 per head in 2014. (This compares with a net contribution of circa £151 per head for the UK as a whole.) Yet polls show that the vote in Wales is finely balanced with no certainty of a remain vote.

Assurances from the leave campaign that after Brexit all that inward investment will somehow continue to flow from Westminster, that Tata Steel could be saved, that support will continue to flow to farmers, that immigration will be stemmed seem to have weight with a population that recently voted in three UKIP members to the Welsh Assembly.

And of course there is the traditional suspicion of the English elite. By contrast in Scotland, the remain campaign has a strong lead. One of the most influential arguments in the Scottish referendum was that if Scotland chose to leave the UK, it would jeopardise its EU membership. So would Scotland take kindly to being forced out of the EU after just choosing to stay in it? And would an exit vote act as a stimulus and hasten the break up of the Union?

Although there is currently a relatively strong remain lead in Northern Ireland, as the only nation in the UK to share a border with an EU country, the impact of a leave vote is particularly complicated. That border introduces the prospect of Northern Ireland becoming a back door for migration into the UK or for smuggling. Even worse is the prospect of destabilisation of the Good Friday agreement.

And the outcome of a leave vote for the devolved nations looks particularly challenging: Wales looks set to lose money, there will be an eternity of referendums in Scotland and Northern Ireland’s stability may become fragile once again. So the outcome of Thursday’s vote is likely to have wider long term implications than meets the eye.

Let’s hope that we can pull back from that edge.

Jayne Dowden, Chief Operating Officer, Cardiff University

What has the EU referendum meant for your institution? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.