Brexit – A view from the Continent

For more than a week the international news has been dominated by the vote in Britain to leave the European Union. It was a close call. Not only was the result unexpected, it has created a deeply divided country.

As a European, whatever that may mean, I watched on TV some reactions from the British public. An elderly lady with a middle-class accent, confident and smiling, confided in a reporter that "Winston Churchill would have been proud of us". A young man, teary and bewildered, said that he felt his "future had been taken away". The divide has an important generational component.

As many other people state, the referendum was not really about the EU and the role of the UK in it. It reflects instead a total disillusion of 'the people' with traditional politics. It says more about the dilemmas of our post-modern society and the loss of identity this seems to bring with it.

Dilemmas and choices confront us that are so overwhelmingly difficult that we have not yet found the answers to them, nor the systems and structures to deal with them. Anger and frustration rule and populist politicians exploit this insecurity by providing simple answers to complex issues, waving the flag and promising to build walls against foreigners. They make people feel reassured while at the same time creating very dangerous tensions within and among countries.

In the end the vote in Britain appears to have been mainly about immigration and racism. The EU made it possible for workers from within the union to come to the UK to work. The large number of Polish people working in the UK have particularly met with hostility, but they are not the only ones.

And there are the people – mostly non-white – who come from destitute parts of the world to look for a dignified life and a future for their children. In their stream come unwanted persons, including those involved in human trafficking and criminals.

However, the xenophobic attitude of some Brits at this moment is largely against people of colour, often those who have been born and raised in the UK. And last but not least there is the fear that the EU will relocate large numbers of refugees who are now in other parts of the EU to the UK or that they will try to cross the Channel.

The current massive flow cannot continue and must be accommodated in different ways. New humane measures have to be developed to deal with the largest refugee crisis ever. It is now estimated that worldwide more than 65 million people are displaced. Among them are talented students, researchers and experienced professionals.

People, especially those on lower incomes, feel lost amid this global competition and massive immigration, not only in the UK but all over Europe.

At the other end of the scale, there is the class who are better off and come from privileged backgrounds and have education and connections. They also see that a new world order is undermining their position and hope to restore or retain their influence. That explains why the referendum cut through class and traditional party politics.

It may also explain why highly respected academics, often with a broad global network and with long-time successful involvement in international research, also feel threatened by the pressure to compete to be ‘world class’.

They too are dealing with the complexities of increased diversity on campus, in the lab and classroom, not to mention the high level of competition now that human resource policies in most universities are aimed at talent in a global market instead of connecting within the old boys' network at home.

A wake-up call

Young people in the UK voted overwhelmingly against leaving the EU. They know the future is not an isolated, insular matter and, although Britain now celebrates 'independence', the country will wake up to see that we live in an ever-increasing interdependence. Like 9-11 the Brexit vote is a wake-up call. It will not change the world, but it shows that the world has changed already.

Is the EU a solution for European countries seeking to deal with the realities in this part of the world? Increasingly there is doubt. ‘Brussels’ is a waste of money, bureaucratic, non-democratic, slow and inefficient is the often heard opinion and it is not untrue. But the same is said of Washington, Westminster, Paris and probably all governments.

National governments, however, are seen as unavoidable. National political mistakes are forgiven or punished in the next election. European collaboration is a choice and a difficult one with 28 countries involved. Membership of the EU is felt as a burden placed on unwilling shoulders because many don’t understand what the package being offered is.

Ask anyone how the costs of the EU relate to, say the costs of military investments, national health or building roads in their own country. Most people, even highly educated ones, will not have a clue.

Ask Europeans what the number of civil servants in Brussels is (on their no doubt ridiculous salaries.) They will not realise that most middle-sized European cities have more employees than the whole EU bureaucracy. Unfortunately, ‘Europe’ has not excited the imagination of many of ‘the people’, not as a political ideal or economic programme and not even as a peace project.

Peace in Europe is a recent phenomenon. In 1916 on a single day there were as many as 60,000 casualties in the trenches near the Somme. The Holocaust cost millions of lives in less than five years.

Everybody says these days that this should never happen again, but we should not be naïve about what could happen. Different levels of trust, or rather fundamental distrust, favouritism and corruption in the national arena, do not automatically create confidence in supra-national bodies.

The EU is perceived by many as a – dangerous – political entity taking away national sovereignty, where in reality it is the various nations themselves who collectively, through their elected leaders, determine what is happening and jointly agree on the money flows.

Better democratic procedures for law-making are overdue and need immediate attention. There is no excuse. But keeping the peace is more difficult than waging wars. Political cultures vary widely across the different countries as a result of language, history and geography. This is true also in education, providing a broad spectrum of European attitudes and mentalities.

Personally, over the years I have been to many meetings in Brussels discussing and contributing on how the Bologna process was first introduced and developed and how the various stages of the Erasmus programme were implemented and improved.

It was a difficult process, not without challenges and disappointments but I am convinced that the quality of European higher education has benefited greatly and that international collaboration would not have reached the results it has without this European impulse.

And let’s not forget that ‘all this money that goes to Brussels’ was used for scholarships for more than three million students from 1987-2013 and that between 2014 and 2020 in the new Erasmus Plus Programme €14.7 billion (US$16.4 billion) will be spent on international education through a wide variety of activities, scholarships, programmes and projects to enhance the European open space for education and give hundreds of thousands of students a chance to study abroad, young people from Europe and from around the world.


That brings us to the question of how Brexit will impact the internationalisation of higher education. In the short term it probably will not have any direct impact. It will take several years before it becomes clear how the UK and the EU will continue working together.

However, it may start a process whereby parties will begin to redefine research collaboration because they will not be sure about future funding. Most EU projects are long term and a lot of money has already been allotted for the period up to 2020.

However, I estimate that the long-term effects will be very important because of the collateral financial support from business and industry. When Britain is no longer an EU member, investments and the free movement of services and products will influence trade and the valorisation of research.

This is the reason the leaders of top UK universities warned against Brexit in an open letter to the Independent a few days before the referendum. They were gravely concerned that the UK could lose its place as a global leader in science and innovation and thus become less attractive for students and researchers.

More than student mobility, it will be research funding that is under pressure and may limit UK access to international collaboration. This is an aspect of research that is now essential to the quality of university standards and international rankings.

But it is the wider consequences for business, industry and international trade – rather than for higher education – that will show how independently and successfully the UK can operate.

Already this year the UK has lost its position as the receiver of the largest number of international students in Europe. Germany is now the most desired study destination in the EU. Also, students who traditionally went to the UK have made different choices, like Indian students who prefer the US now.

It is not clear how a new UK government will handle visa issues and study permits. If coming to the UK becomes more difficult, students and researchers will probably try to go elsewhere. This may have a severe impact on talent coming to the UK. But at the same time we see that increasingly transnational education comprises the largest number of students and income for British institutions.

When we look at these figures the UK is still the largest market in Europe for international education, but due to activities outside the borders of the UK. And here again, a large market is in the EU. When higher education becomes more of an international commodity, independent of physical borders, the UK is likely to maintain its leading position.

After the UK has left the EU it will be interesting to see how higher fees will impact on the flow of students from the EU. Even now the UK is expensive and higher education is likely to become even more expensive unless the value of the pound is an important leveller. Reputation and the cultural climate of ‘foreign friendliness’ will probably be overriding factors.

An important question is what UK students will do. Will they start looking for places outside the UK? Over the past couple of years, for instance in the Netherlands, the number of UK students studying for full degree programmes has risen sharply, but this was more a result of economic reasons than political ones.

When in the future UK students are no longer EU students, in most countries they will have to pay higher fees than they do now. So this may result in a choice to study at home more, especially when the British pound is falling to a level where it is becoming much cheaper to live in Britain than elsewhere in Europe.

But in spite of these economic reasons students may want to study ‘on the continent’ because they like the academic culture and collaborative approach in European higher education.

The most important long-term consequence for student mobility will be the openness of the system, perceived or real in the UK and the various European countries. When students from around the world feel they are no longer welcome in the UK as a result of the political climate, this will have important consequences.

Students today, and internationally mobile students in particular, are part of a transcultural and urban way of life that is highly cosmopolitan. Will the UK default from this? I don’t think so. Young people in Britain are not xenophobic and its higher education system is robust and internationally oriented.

Hanneke Teekens is an independent consultant of higher education, a senior fellow of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, and former board member of the Netherlands Organisation of Cooperation in Higher Education or Nuffic, and was director of the Erasmus Programme in the Netherlands. She is a frequent speaker at international conferences and seminars and on the board of editors of the Handbook of International Education.