Brexit and academia: the greatest failure?
By David Godwin
By definition, academia has never not been a challenge. On top of coping with the pervasive ‘publish or perish’ atmosphere that cripples even the most talented academics, responsibilities to attend conferences, give lectures, edit books, propose research projects and find work when a fixed-term post ends cause many to burnout and give up. And that’s before teaching undergraduates, supervising MA seminars and guiding PhD students through a dissertation comes into play.
Brexit is set to increase the challenges that face today’s modern academics. One of the biggest challenges surrounds funding. Current academic initiatives such as Horizon and the ERC guarantee the free movement of scientists and their ideas. Leaving the EU is likely to stop much of that movement and halt the money they might have brought with them: according to one report, EU funding is estimated to be worth £141 billion. A discipline like archaeology, which receives 38% of its funding from the EU, is likely to be crushed if that can’t be replaced.
On top of that, many UK researchers have found that EU institutions are avoiding working with them. In such instances, academics have no choice but to leave the UK: the 30% rise in departures of EU staff from universities has already been read as a sign of a later exodus. Whatever promises have been made to guarantee funding, the question of who and how research will be funded after we leave looms large. As Dr Peter Frankopan stated at this year’s Convention on Brexit, scholars aren’t immune to changes in the forecast: they’ll move to the money if they have to.
EU students are likely to face a similar financial strain. Under current legislation, EU students studying in the UK are charged up to, but no more than, £9250. Those from outside the EU studying in the UK pay almost four times that. It is almost a certainty that any student not based in the UK will be hit with a bill even higher than the one they’re currently saddled with. Which will drive away many of the brightest and most promising students who are put off by such debt. As Cambridge professor Dr David Clifford wrote back in 2011, ‘a debt of £27,000 means something quite different to a household for whom this represents a gross annual salary rather than an agreeable shares dividend’. As one PhD researcher who teaches at Edinburgh relayed to me, many in the sector fear how the UK can ‘fill the gap left by European Research Council funding’ and how the numbers of students applying to the university is likely to change: ‘Presumably I’ll be teaching fewer [EU students] from now on.’
While academia might want to broaden the horizons of those wishing to study, our government’s vision for Britain’s place in the world couldn’t be more different. The UK needs academics and academia, just like it needs bankers and banking. Their research in the humanities to teach a new generation about their past’s successes and failures is vital and their work to harness alternative forms of energy is essential: oil and fossil fuels will not sustain us forever. And while medical treatments like chemotherapy are efficient, they are brutal courses of action that could (and are likely to) be replaced with something equally successful and less violent. For that to happen, we need to be a member of the EU.
When Stephen Hawking appeared in a 1994 advert for BT, he posited that ‘mankind’s greatest achievements ha[d] come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking.’ Leaving aside the promotional context of Hawkins’ line, his words should nevertheless come as a poignant reminder that in pursuing Brexit, we risk shutting ourselves off from the world and turning away from the sort of developments that might one day save our planet and civilisation.