The five stages of Brexit grief for universities

It is difficult to imagine a group of people more stricken by the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union than the 5,200 people from 80 countries who assembled for the recent European Association for International Education or EAIE conference.

Laura Howard, president of EAIE, opened the event on a sombre note, reflecting that as a Brit who has lived and worked in Spain for the past 30 years, she now does not know if she will be able to continue to do so. The mayor of Liverpool followed, bragging to delegates that the city had indeed voted to stay in the EU (to cheers) and continues to welcome visitors and refugees (to more cheers).

Many of us outside Europe had come expecting to learn about the practical implications of the vote for UK higher education, its relationships with the continent, and the flow-on effects for other players in a highly interconnected international education sector. We are wondering what new strategies and tactics are required now for collaboration, exchange and recruitment. We thought this was the place to find out.

But what transpired in Liverpool shows that the European international education community is not going to be ready to process such prosaic matters for quite a while. To understand why, we need to treat Brexit as a death and recognise the phases of grieving that are involved in coming to terms with such a tragedy.

Phil Baty, from Times Higher Education, observed at one point that the panel he was chairing on Euroscepticism was sounding like a therapy session. So perhaps it would help to view the Brexit response in terms of the five stages of grief and loss described by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her seminal 1969 book On Death and Dying – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

It is going to take much longer than I had imagined for the UK, and Europe, to come to terms with what has happened.

What seems to have died is the European international education community’s faith in the inevitability of the cosmopolitan project, in which national boundaries and ethnic loyalties would dissolve over time to allow greater openness, diversity and a sense of global citizenship.

EAIE’s vision is decidedly post-national: “We believe international education and exchange deepens appreciation of human society and is essential to the prosperity of societies and individuals alike.”

For the Brits, the Brexit vote was the final nail in the coffin of ‘cool Britannia’ – an image of a youthful, creative and dynamic culture open to the world that was promoted by Tony Blair’s new Labour government when it came to power in 1997. The British Council jumped on board to promote the UK as a study destination that was both “respected and exciting”. Needless to say, the British Council faces an uphill battle now.

So how was the grieving process manifesting at the EAIE conference?


In the immediate aftermath, many struggled to believe it; some still are maintaining that it is completely unclear what the vote means. Quite a few people at the conference spoke as if Brexit is too catastrophic a prospect to be possible. Once people realise what they have done, their reasoning went, we will surely find a way to stay in the EU. Perhaps a second referendum. Perhaps a vote of Parliament.


Some had moved on from disbelief to anger, and their favourite targets were the most obvious: the outright lies printed on the ‘Boris bus’ (which was built in Germany); David Cameron’s decision to have a simplistic plebiscite on such a complex issue; and The Sun newspaper’s populist sloganeering.

I was surprised not to hear any blame laid at the feet of British universities. After all, hadn’t they resisted the spirit of the Bologna integration process by continuing to offer one-year masters degrees? Hadn’t they proved unable or unwilling to mobilise UK students to participate fully in European exchange programmes?

In the most recent issue of Boston College’s influential publication, International Higher Education, Fiona Hunter and Hans de Wit expressed such frustration, albeit in the politest of terms. They contended that UK universities will now “need to find a way to express internationalisation in other terms than for the purposes of prestige and income generation, and demonstrate the importance of a genuinely inclusive approach, as expressed in the statements they are currently making.” Ouch.


Many at the conference were still looking for a way out as well. If only we had appealed to Britons on an emotional level, rather than running a fact-based campaign. If only we can convince people how crazy this decision is.

Clearly, Prime Minister Theresa May is having none of that, responding simply that “Brexit means Brexit”. The first time (of many) that I heard the catchphrase ‘What does Brexit means Brexit mean?’ spoken at the conference I was quite confused, too.

The Scottish universities have another line of bargaining available to them, since a higher proportion of Scots voted to remain in the EU this year (61.9%) than voted to stay in Britain in 2014 (55.3%). Will the Scottish universities take a stand on the conundrum of whether to stay in the UK or the EU? We may know by the time of next year’s EAIE conference in Seville.


Most Brits at the conference were still in a post-Brexit slump. “Brexit has pulled the rug from beneath us,” said Mark Anderson, director of the Europe Office at Glasgow Caledonian University. After decades of engagement with the EU, he lamented, the higher education community had not been able to mobilise sufficient public support for the European project, and even during the campaign, some institutions had remained on the sidelines for fear of engaging too directly in politics.

Meanwhile, in England most regions, apart from the biggest cities, voted to leave, not just those marginalised communities that have felt let down by the cosmopolitan project, but also very many affluent communities. The universities have lost the battle for England’s hearts and minds.


Promisingly, one of the most over-subscribed sessions at the conference was titled ‘Life after #Brexit: UK-EU partnerships (research, student and staff mobility)’, with many participants turned away at the door to the bursting venue.

This suggests that many are keen to consider the practical realities of international education post-EU. There are many steps that institutions are starting to take, from the bread and butter (expanding bilateral exchange agreements with EU universities) to pie in the sky (establishing UK branch campuses within the EU).

The UK government has just extended its commitment to existing funding arrangements for EU students commencing in the 2017-18 academic year. We will soon see how the UK's attractiveness to students from the EU is affected by the spectre of Brexit. But considering the government wants desperately to reduce net migration rates, and persists in including international students in those figures, a drop in the number of EU students may well be seen positively on Downing Street.

In the meantime, UK universities will be looking to recruit students from the rest of the world to compensate. They will be helped by a British pound that has devalued significantly since the result, making the country noticeably more affordable for students and conference-goers alike.

It may be more difficult to recruit staff from overseas, though. The UK is still home to a diverse population of scholars from all over the world, but perhaps that will change.

University of Liverpool Vice-chancellor Janet Beer recounted how in the days immediately after the result, three new recruits turned down job offers to her university: two from the continent who felt they wouldn’t be able to continue their research outside of the EU funding systems, and one from Canada who didn’t want to work in a country like the one the UK seemed to be becoming.

Universities UK has sought assurances from the government that EU academic and professional staff working in universities will be able to remain in the UK after Brexit, but that is not forthcoming. The status of ‘stranded’ citizens on both sides will be a major topic of forthcoming negotiations, and is not likely to be resolved soon.

One of the most fascinating contributions on Brexit at the conference came from someone who is not from Britain or the EU. Lutz-Peter Berg, science and technology attaché at the Embassy of Switzerland in London, recounted his country’s experience in participating in EU research funding schemes from 2003.

Membership in the research frameworks was conditional upon free movement of people between the EU and Switzerland, but that arrangement ended abruptly in 2014 when the country voted to introduce quotas for all migrants in Switzerland. The lesson for the UK was simple: unless you commit to freedom of movement (which is not likely), forget about participation in EU research programmes.

The ability of UK universities to reposition themselves towards global networks to compensate for the loss of connection with the EU is, unfortunately, dependent upon a government that appears more interested in stoking and satisfying xenophobic sentiments than in the pleas from the higher education sector.

While those around the world committed to international education feel a great deal of sympathy with the grieving of our colleagues in the UK and in Europe, at least the tensions in Europe’s west are being resolved democratically and peacefully. Spare a thought for those educators working in Ukraine or Turkey on Europe’s Eastern frontier, who are enduring far worse.

Professor Christopher Ziguras is president of the International Education Association of Australia and deputy dean, international, at the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University, Australia. This article was originally published in Campus Review (October 2016).