How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Brexit

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Brexit

My latest post on Wonkhe considers five silver linings for the university sector on Brexit.

” Our sector’s values and culture are not determined by whether laws are made in Brussels, Westminster or Holyrood. Regardless of what deal we leave on, or whether we leave on no deal at all, I’m confident that Britain’s universities will continue to be global, outwardly looking and cosmopolitan places, extending a welcoming hand to people from across the world.”

14 thoughts on “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Brexit

  1. Appreciate and applaud the effort to do the impossible here! But even so, I’m not sure that any of the “silver linings” really are net positives.

    Number 1 – first, “an end to discriminatory treatment of students” seems a bit hyperbolic (and not fully true – UK students will still be treated preferentially [not saying that’s a problem, but it’s far from the end of discriminatory treatment]). Plus, pragmatically speaking, I’d rather have easy access to 500 million than easy access to 65 million. Of course, there’s an argument that fairness should trump pragmatism, but it’s not fully clear to me that the post-Brexit status quo is fairer than the current status quo.

    Number 2 – even in the section title, you acknowledge that this is a negative point for most institutions.

    Number 3 – let’s just say, I’m not holding my breath. This is the most persuasive of the arguments, but it’s speculative at best.

    Number 4 – this is a fair point, but it’s nothing to do with the university sector.

    Number 5 – again, you concede in the section title that this is a negative rather than a positive.

    So to me, even your silver linings are negatives with a thin silver lining.

    I found the title slightly at odds with the rest of the article – the tenor of the article was that Brexit is a bad thing for HE, but we should go along with it anyway. “How I learned to stop worrying quite so much and put up with Brexit” would seem more appropriate – there’s certainly little in the article to allay worries. And the LoTR quote – I interpreted this as you meaning that universities should diminish (but remain Galadriel). Was I correct? Again, this didn’t hugely fill me with confidence. It seems that what you are saying that you are going to handicap the industry, but you want us to keep on producing value for the UK. Is this really the message that Brexit has for the HE sector? It’s pretty thin comfort.

    1. The title is a reference to the satire/black comedy Dr Strangelove. Given how the film ends, there is more than a little irony here.

      On the linings:
      – I’ll give you 2 and 5.
      – 4 is relevant for the people who are working in the university sector: it is a silver lining for the reader.
      – On Number 1, even for someone who places no or minimal value on the nation state, there are two very strong objective reasons why differentiating between UK/RoW is more justifiable than between UK+EU/RoW:
      – It is UK residents who support the student funding system through their taxes. It is therefore reasonable for them to have preferential access.
      – It is UK citizens only who vote for the government which has sole competency over university admissions/fees.

      This touches on a broader point here, which is that coincidence of Taxation + Representation + Rights needs to be in place for proper legitimacy. It’s why it’s fine that US states set different rates for in-state vs out-of-state students at their university (state university policy and funding are controlled at state level) and the lack of alignment between these underlies many of the problems with the EU.

      Galadriel: to me, the Galadriel quote speaks most strongly to those who are tempted to remain in the EU so that Britain ‘can remain a world power’ or for wealth, and don’t realise that it will essentially stop being Britain in doing so. As the passage says, better to diminish and keep your identity than to technically achieve your goal but lose your soul. In this context, the link is much more with the final paragraph – that it’s the character of UK universities that is what matters, and that is what must endure despite ups and downs.

      1. Thanks – the motivation for the Galadriel quote makes sense now that you explain it. I thought the quote was intended as coming from the mouth of the HE section, but you intended it as the UK as a whole. I haven’t watched Dr Strangelove I’m afraid!

        I don’t doubt that differentiating between UK/RoW is more justifiable than between UK+EU/RoW. Aside from the pedantic objection to the title, I can see how this could be argued to be fairer, but to me it’s not clear cut (and still – pragmatically, it’s a lot worse!). Anyway, I accept that this is the right thing to do, but it is already having a negative impact on the sector.

        1. Interestingly, I haven’t watched it either, but it’s one that’s still managed to enter my general consciousness! Hopefully I’ll get round to seeing it some day.

          I think the thing for me that mitigates the impact of removing the subsidies from EU students is that I see that it was an appalling squandering of taxpayers’ money in the first place. I’m sorry that it will cause an impact, and hope that the forewarning will help mitigate it, just as I’d hope job losses could be minimised if we were removing big subsidies from any industry, but that doesn’t change the basic position. I appreciate that you and many others don’t see it that way though.

          1. Oh, I don’t doubt that it is a questionable use of taxpayers’ money, but it was a questionable use of taxpayers’ money that benefitted my industry. It’s not that I don’t accept that this is the right thing to do – the objection is to describing it as anything other than a massive loss for the HE sector.

          2. I see what you mean. The silver lining I meant was that at least the loss comes with a reduction in discrimination – as yes, clearly overall it is a loss.

  2. 1 – we’re also removing from our students the ability to study in 27 other countries without paying international fees, which is what the agreement actually is. While the value of that can be weighed against the financial gain/loss, its an important part of the picture and shouldn’t be diminished.
    2 – that sounds pretty negative to me.
    3 – again, our graduates/postgrads are losing the ability to (easily) work in 27 other countries. The strength of the UK’s research system is its internationalism, and the EU27 play a big part in those roles. The working conditions of the UK research market are pretty similar across the world, and are largely financially motivated (see point 2).
    4 – the issue is but *that* people voted leave, but *why^ people voted leave, and what benefit they think it’s going to have for them, based on the information presented to them (which I consider to be inaccurate). For the same reason, I will advise people to: not listen to Gwyneth Paltrow about where to stick styrene crystals; vaccinate their kids; be concerned about the climate.
    5 – I suspect the shock will be felt very unevenly across the sector (as across the country as a whole), and given that a number of universities are in rather dicey financial situations, there could be grave consequences for some. In the student numbers I’ve seen reports of 3% decrease in EU enrolers in the Russell Group. On research funding, the UK government still hasn’t confirmed how (or whether) it will cover ERC or Marie Skłodowska-Curie grants/fellowships or the UK-led Horizon 2020 grants.

    1. I agree the shock will be uneven. You’re right that there are other disadvantages, but my piece explicitly acknowledges that it will be net negative for the university sector, so that is clearly implicit in the article.

      On 4, we know why people voted Leave: the top two reasons were (1) the principle that decisions affecting the UK should be made in the UK and (2) to regain control over our borders and immigration.

      You may disagree with these as priorities, but they are not false: Brexit (unless a Brexit In Name Only is forced on us by Remainers) will indeed deliver these. The idea that you will only respect people’s choices if they make them according to your values is the moral arrogance I speak against in point 4. Different values are not factually incorrect in the way crystal healing is.

      1. I appreciate that you weren’t trying to sell Brexit as sweetness and light for the HE sector, but I thought some of the negatives were missing from the arguments.

        On #4, my complaint is not simply with people who have different priorities from me, and who want to control our borders or not be beholden to UK law. It’s with what benefits they think it will gain, and how that impacted their decision. I’m not just talking about things written on buses (the low hanging fruit, if you will) – as you say, the economic impact is likely uncertain. It’s the arguments that lowering immigration from the EU will bring swathes of jobs for UK citizens, or stop overcrowding of schools and hospitals. Or that fewer EU citizens in the UK will somehow cause the factories in the North East to re-open. Or that a large proportion of our laws have been imposed upon us without our elected representatives having any say.

        This isn’t an attempt simply to make the same arguments again, and I have no expectation of changing anyone’s mind. But to justify why I think it’s still important to make the arguments.

        To my mind, the situation is similar (in some ways) to the MMR anti-vaccination episode of the late 90s onwards. Now the full story is known, there are still people choosing to not vaccinate their children based on false information, and thinking their doing the right thing. I appreciate that this is a somewhat more “clear cut” situation than Brexit in terms of right/wrong, and that there wasn’t such a 50:50 split. I also appreciate that we have different views on what the outcome of Brexit will be – there’s an alternative analogy where Wakefield was right (and not corrupt etc.) – but it’s the fact that decisions were based on incomplete or false information that makes me most sad about the Brexit vote.

        1. I’m afraid that I really disagree with the recent phenomenon in which some of our more privileged groups seek to declare invalid the voting choices of those they consider less educated/otherwise inferior. (Remain is a prominent case, but it’s not the only one).

          There are lots of areas where I think your views are ill-founded and incorrect; for example your belief that Corbyn won’t destroy our economy or your belief that identity politics makes our society fairer and better. And no doubt vice-versa. But that’s the nature of political disagreement; I don’t agree with you, but I don’t try to say your decision to vote the way you do is somehow invalid, or should be worth less than mine.

          I think it’s hugely dangerous to try to draw an equivalence between a clearly proven scientific fact (‘vaccines don’t cause autism’) and highly complex, multifaceted, values-based questions such as Brexit, taxation/redistribution levels or how to live in a multicultural society. It’s dangerous not just for the functioning of the political process or societal cohesion, but also for public trust in science.

          I appreciate you said they weren’t identical, but you did say they were similar, and I can’t agree with that.

          1. I didn’t say their vote was invalid – that would be very undemocratic and arrogant. I said that it’s the fact that their view is based on (what I consider to be) misinformation about the past/present (as distinct from predictions of the future) that make me sad about Brexit. I’m not saying such a view is uninformed, I’m saying that I think it was misinformed on some fairly fundamental levels, essentially because different groups saw different evidence.

            And yes, the analogy with MMR is flawed in the sense that you describe – I agree that the Brexit situation is somewhat more complex. (I nearly deleted it, in fact).

            Oh and if Corbyn tried to implement his policies with the same conviction with which he’s been leading the opposition recently, I don’t think you have anything to worry about!

          2. Possibly true on the last!

            Everyone has some wrong information – I could argue that many Remain voters voted based on false information about the level of economic damage and the deception that a vote for Remain was a vote for the status quo. And I think that’s true.

            I think we kid ourselves though if we think these factors dominate. The poll I linked to showed clearly that people basically voted for the logical side based on their priorities: sovereignty and immigration for Leave, economy and not wanting to be isolated for Remain.

            More broadly, it is frustrating that those on the Establishment side persist in seeing these votes (similarly on Trump) as people being ‘misinformed’, rather than recognising that for many there is a fundamental difference of values and doctrines. (I take comfort in the fact that this makes it more likely they’ll keep losing!). There was some great research last year that looked at this and found that Leave voters were better at judging the Remain reasons than vice-versa.

            (This is an example of a broader conservative/progressive trend in relative understanding and there are numerous theories as to why e.g Haidt and others).

          3. The misinformation I’m talking about isn’t directly the reasons for voting leave, or the predictions (from either side) about the future, but the perceived problems that caused people to not be happy with the EU. Take, for example, the scale of immigration, particularly EU immigration. This is widely known to be overestimated, but particularly so by Conservative voters (compared with Labour/Lib Dem) and Leavers (compared with Remainers).

            On sovereignty, there’s the statistic that the UK voted in favour of 95% of EU legislation, only voting against 2% (though they has been a trend to be on the losing side more often in recent years). See That’s less clear-cut, of course, since the importance of that depends on how important/significant you consider the laws that pass/fail.

            There is the problem that using facts or statistics is very unlikely to change someone’s mind, and in order to do so the arguments have to be on the “emotional” level. This is something the remain campaign did (and still does) very badly.

            On the misconceptions about the other side, that is interesting – though it would have been interesting to see a similar survey at the time of the referendum, as well as 18 months later. I wonder whether it has something to do with there being several different outcomes for leave, but only really one outcome for remain (unless you include the various possibilities for EU reform at a later date).

  3. I think we’ll have to agree to disagree about the facts/reasons for voting point.

    Yes, I agree that it would be interesting to see a similar survey at the time of the referendum. And I agree, your hypothesis could be part of the reason.

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