In Heathrow on my way to an international workshop, I saw the poster above, part of a campaign of great.gov.uk, which is headed by the Department of International Trade. Its aim is to showcase the UK as a great place to trade with and to invest in, especially post-Brexit when the loss of EU membership will need to be compensated by connections elsewhere.
But all that boasting of greatness sounds hollow if it's not backed up with policy. If the higher education sector is so great, why are the government destroying us by a thousand cuts? It is thoroughly disheartening how little consideration our sector receives from the UK government in its approach to Brexit and the way it treats us more generally.
Morale in UK higher education has reached rock bottom. Friends of mine are facing redundancy at places such as Coventry, and places like Surrey, Keele, and Brighton, have put in place voluntary redundancy schemes for levels of all staff, not ruling out compulsory redundancies if this is insufficient.
Student enrolment from the EU is down across the sector, yet the plan is to have non-renewable three-year student visas for EU citizens after Brexit. Never mind it takes four years to get your degree in Scotland, or that many EU citizens do a one-year master degree after their undergraduate. Also, good luck recruiting EU citizens who want to take longer degrees, such as medicine. Who cares about all that? Who needs doctors, anyway? The UK need to engage in massive self-harm to get the queue jumpers out, that's the message they are sending to prospective students.
Speaking of queue jumpers, it will be very hard for the UK university sector to recruit staff from abroad. I came to the UK from a permanent lecturing position in the Netherlands, using freedom of movement. Would I have moved if, like my non-EU colleagues, I would need to pay extortionate visa fees, to the tune of £5000 or £6000 out of my own pocket? Non-EU workers also pay into the NHS twice with a surcharge especially designed for them. Check out International and Broke on Twitter, and examples like the following:
Add to this that the earnings of UK academics have declined by 19% in real terms over the last 10 years. I think it will be harder to draw in people at the senior level, and we also see how it becomes difficult to recruit at the junior/postdoc level, where salaries are often under £30,000 and thus do not count as "skilled". I just got a letter from a prospective postdoc from Spain who was working with us to fill out an application of a Newton postdoctoral fellowship, "It is with regret and after careful consideration of what is happening in England due to Brexit that I have decided not to apply for the Newton International Fellowship 2019". The UK’s approach to Brexit is scaring people away who would move in a heartbeat just a few years ago. Those people will be lost to UK academia.
Eventually, due to the UK government's short-sighted focus on immigration our students will lose access to Erasmus, and we will lose Erasmus students coming to us. This is a disaster, particularly for language degrees and other degrees that require immersion in another country's language and culture (for language courses at our universities, a semester abroad is mandatory to hone linguistic skills, Erasmus is a big facilitator). How will our students compete with the multi-lingual Europeans post-Brexit? Already now, the UK is lagging behind in language education. I speak four languages (and am learning a fifth) and am seen as a veritable polyglot by colleagues, yet in many European countries this is pretty standard.
Also for our staff, collaboration with the rest of the EU is critical. The European Research Council facilitates collaborative grants, so it cannot simply be replaced with UK funding. For those who think we can in the UK make up for the loss of access to ERC funds and other collaborations, this does not take into account the reality of physical proximity. Like trade, education and research thrives on physical closeness.
Just to give an example, as I am typing this, it's 3 AM in the morning; I'm at a workshop in Atlanta (Georgia), I'm severely jet-lagged as usual. Due to the logistics, travel time, and my teaching obligations, there's only a very limited number of speaking/workshop engagements I can accept in the States, and I need to regretfully decline most invitations I receive across the Atlantic (also, carbon footprint, my carbon footprint's already awful). Moreover, flying me over is not cheap for my American hosts. If I organize workshops and other events at my own UK university, I invite foremost European scholars because it stretches the budget further. The past few years I've been in doctoral committees for dissertations in Norway, the Netherlands, and Poland, and I've co-organized workshops with people in Belgium. It all makes sense because the logistics are easier, the cost is lower, and the carbon footprint is smaller.
Notice that in all this I have not even begun to discuss how the government deals with us, essentially by setting up a bunch of zero-sum games in which our universities have to compete with each other over students, research funds, and other goods. For example, the TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework) does not even involve assessors coming into the classroom to see how we actually teach. The REF (Research Excellence Framework) sucks a lot of energy out of our sector, and institutionalizes a Matthew effect whereby richer institutions can recruit the best researchers, including luring American professors on small part-time contracts so they are "counted" for the REF.
I did not discuss here the depressing zero-sum game of student recruitment where institutions feel forced to lower their entry requirements and make the degree easier (e.g., scrapping of all exams) in the hopes of attracting more students. I'll write another day about how all the extra hoops of REF, TEF, NSS stress out our staff without really making a positive difference for our students. I won't go into detail about the Office for Students, which claims to be "working in the interests of students and prospective students", but doesn't actually have students who have a say in how it's run.
We lecturers and support staff try make the best of it. We jump through the hoops. We play the zero-sum student recruitment game. It is all very depressing, we put up with it, but I fear that Brexit will be the coup the grâce for our sector.