Thursday, 11 August 2016

Stopping the Bleeding

Kubler-Ross: Helping us understand our grief
The tsunami that hit British politics on 23 June 2016 laid waste to many political careers and irreparably cracked the foundations of the European dream. In higher education there is still a sense of bewilderment and loss, and a group of survivors gathered at Senate House on Tuesday for a Wonkhe-sponsored day conference to survey the damage and assess how best to rebuild. As one of the first speakers put it, ‘how can we stop the bleeding?’

Why Did We Vote to Leave?

Prof Matthew Goodwin kicked off by offering a clinical analysis of why the UK had voted for Brexit. ‘Once immigration dominated the debate, it was difficult for the Remain campaign to come back,’ he said and, whilst it was a shock to higher education, it wasn’t a surprise: it had been brewing for at least 30 years. Indeed, the moderating results in Scotland, Northern Ireland and London masked an even starker Leave majority of 54% in England. 421 of 574 constituencies voted leave, but only 148 MPs did, demonstrating a real disconnect between the electorate and their representatives.

Digging down further, it was clear that the country was divided by social class, generation and geography. 73% of 18-24 year olds voted Remain, and 60% of over 65 year olds voted Leave; 57% of ABC1s voted Remain, and 64% of C2s voted Leave, with a similar divided between the wealthiest and poorest households.

However, for Goodwin, education was at the heart of the story. 15 of the 20 least educated authorities voted Leave, whilst all 20 of the most highly educated  voted Remain. If you break this down by educational achievements, only 18% of those with no formal education voted Remain, 28% of those with a primary education, 36% of those with a secondary education, 57% with a degree, 68% of those with a postgraduate degree, and 81% of those in full time education.

Interestingly, although immigration dominated (and, to a certain extent, won) the debate, it was more about the impression of immigration rather than the actuality. Of the 20 places with the most EU migrants, 18 voted Remain; of the 20 with the fewest, 15 voted Leave. However, if you factored in the change in immigration numbers, the numbers make more sense. Those which had experienced the biggest influx, regardless of overall figures, were where the Leave vote was the strongest.

Looking to the future, it’s clear that the political landscape has shifted, and that we are in for a protracted period of Conservative dominance. UKIP support will probably fall, having achieved its raison d’etre, and the Labour civil war will probably lead to the loss of at least 40-50 seats, places the Tories haven’t held since the 1980s.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Following Goodwin, a number of commentators, policy advisors and leaders explored how universities should adapt to the new landscape. Smita Jamdar made clear that they should return to the civic and philanthropic underpinning of their original charters. Many universities were set up to serve their communities, but had become increasingly removed from this founding vision as the demand of global competition and international league tables to be world leading had become ever more pressing.

Andy Westwood emphasised the need not to concentrate too much on the ‘transactional’ fall out from Brexit - the lack of access to European funding, for instance - and instead look at how they can work with the May government to build on her ‘one nation’ vision. Echoing Jamdar, Westwood suggested universities had become too removed from the reality of the communities they served, and needed to re-engage.

Key Challenges, and How to Overcome Them

Putting more flesh on the bones of this, Alistair Jarvis mapped out the three key issues facing universities in the short term:

  • People: how to ensure that both staff and students are still able and willing to come to the UK, and that universities don’t see a brain drain to other, more attractive parts of the world;
  • Access: to networks and funding. Beyond people, how will universities ensure they are still able to link into the collaborative networks that are the life blood of their research and teaching?
  • Regulation: including issues around the governance research, the macroeconomy, currency fluctuations, social cohesion, regional divisions, anti-expert feeling, and a seond Scottish referendum.

Ideally, universities would want reassurances about the immigration status of non-UK staff and students, about the access to student finance for EU students, about limiting bureaucracy regarding mobility, and about access to H2020.

However, he was realistic about where we are, and summed it up pithily in four bullet points:

  • That we will leave Europe, by 2019 probably;
  • That there will be some restriction on the movement of people;
  • That the Conservatives will dominate the Commons for the foreseeable future;
  • That there will be a new export strategy, a new immigration system, and a new industrial strategy.

Based on this, he offered ten thoughts on where universities need to focus if they are to make the most of the new climate. Broadly, he suggested that they should not ‘moan on’ about the result and expend energy on trying to protect the status quo. They should avoid a eurocentric solution to the current situation.

Rather, they need to accept the new political reality and, in so doing, separate the short term asks from longer term vision. In the short term there’s a need for certainty and stability in areas such as staff and student migration. In the longer term the case needs to be made of how UK higher education can benefit the country globally, through the export strategy, jobs, growth, industrial strategy, innovation, inward investment, social cohesion, diplomacy and international partners.

More specifically, he suggested that UK HE focuses on four things that will ensure that universities thrive after Brexit. These are:

  • Government support to enhance international research collaboration and innovation
  • Policies to enhance the UK as an attractive destination for international students and staff
  • Stable and sustainable investment
  • Global opportunities for UK students a staff

Jonathan Simons concurred with much of this, emphasising the sensitivity in government at the moment. Universities can’t demand the status quo: Brexiters are very cautious and sensitive about Brexit not actually happening.

He related two anecdotes that helped highlight the need for sensitivity and thoughtfulness in the negotiations. Firstly, he noted that, in the current discussion over grammar schools it had been stated that  ‘the anti-Grammar school argument might have the best facts, but you need the best stories to win the argument’.

Secondly, when he was discussing Brexit with a policymaker, his interlocutor had become angry at his suppositions, speculations and conjectures. ‘You have no idea what’s going to happen,’ he said. ‘None of us do: it’s all guesswork at the moment.’

So, practically, he suggested the following:

  • That the sector make the case for universities being at the heart of ‘new Britain.’ This is close to what Gove was saying in the campaign, so clearly resonates with the government: the diea of ‘elite Britannia unchained.’ It might not sit comfortably in HE, but
  • Don’t treat government homogeneously. Some departments will be focussed on economics, others on immigration, others on soft power, others social cohesion. Try and work out who’s interest in what
  • Be very practical. Brexit is, essentially, a big headache for the civil service. Dept of Brexit will only include around 200 civil servants or so. So present solutions and draft legislation that has been vetted by lawyers, is ready to go, and can immediately adopted.  
  • Be precise in what you want: big abstract numbers are difficult to comprehend.
  • Use and include your constituency MPs. They could be incredibly strong advocates.
  • Pick your examples well. Sometimes the Oxbridge and the Russell Group are the exemplars to use; at other times it might make sense to use the post-92s.

Throughout the day the analogy of the K├╝bler-Ross model of the stages of grief was raised to explain our reaction to the Referendum result. Some couldn’t get beyond the anger, whereas others felt they had made it to the bargaining phase. The more optimistic - the Pollyannas, as Tricia King liked to see herself - were already at acceptance and moving on to the new opportunities. Whilst it pains us all - and me as much as anyone - it behoves us to do the same and try and use Jarvis and Simons to stem the bleeding, bandage the wounds and move on.

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