The latest period of globalisation has been good for higher education in Britain and much of the rest of the world. There has been freer movement of people and ideas. Last year about 4.5 million young people studied outside their home nation. Millions of others took advantage of increased opportunities for transnational education.
Cross-national research collaboration flourished so that over one-third of the products of global research have international authors – co-operating and sharing credit and effort. In the UK one in four academic faculty members are international citizens.
With the ready movement of students and scholars, classrooms, tutorials and seminar rooms became culturally diverse, broadening the range of perspectives and experiences that shaped learning opportunities.
Research teams and laboratories ceased to be mono-cultures as the best minds in the world had more opportunities to work together on the pressing problems of the world; problems like SARS, clean water, biodiversity; problems that crossed geographic borders and had little respect for passport and customs control or national identity.
The success of the Bologna process made it easier for credentials gained in the different nations of the European higher education area to be recognised, giving graduates access to a wider range of economic opportunities. It widened the market for skill and gave individuals more choice in terms of where they worked and for whom and for how much.
A global market for higher education emerged and flourished, bringing major financial benefits to the university cities and towns of the United Kingdom. It is not just the metropolises like London (net £2.3 billion a year): it reaches Sheffield (net £100 million a year) and Brighton and Hove, creating local jobs as well as revenue.
The UK as a whole benefited economically as one million students came to study or took UK-branded courses elsewhere.
In 2012 these activities were worth about £18 billion (US$26 billion) to the UK economy.
All of this is put at risk by the decision to exit from Europe and embrace isolationism with a fervour akin to the US proponents of the Neutrality Acts of 1935, 1937 and 1939, which introduced financial controls on loans across borders, constrained exports and limited individual movement as Fascism rose in Europe and the Spanish civil war dragged on.
Of course, the decision to leave the European Union does not stop individual scholars, researchers and institutions from cooperating across national boundaries. Nor does it prevent young people from choosing to study abroad or learn English. It does not make it mandatory for hiring committees to reject meritorious applications from foreigners.
Access to European research funding pools and academic mobility programmes may be reshaped or re-prioritised. Idealists hope that UK-sourced funds for research will increase so scholars will not want for resources, time or equipment.
Them and us
But the signalling effect of a “leave” vote is just another way of saying “they are not the same as us”, not equal, not to be trusted. It is a restatement of difference between self and other, them and us. And it will be perceived as insular and unwelcoming.
As a result, mobility will falter, classrooms and laboratories will become less diverse, co-operation will become a little rarer and exchange and reciprocity will be replaced by sales and barter. English academic life will be poorer for the losses and so will academic life in other parts of the world.
We know that globalisation comes in phases and ebbs and flows. It has slowed in the past 10 years due to financial crises, terrorism and a desire by some to reassert political or religious sovereignty. But a collective act – a majority vote by plebiscite – has a wider sweep and sends a louder message that will echo and re-echo for a generation.
Alan Ruby is senior scholar at the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy, Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania in the US. An Australian citizen, permanent resident in the United States, alumnus of the London Institute of Education, he works in partnership with colleagues at the Faculty of Education at Cambridge University, UK.
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