Three weeks ago, I returned to Britain from a trip to East Asia. One of the first things I noticed at Heathrow airport was the big welcome sign that greets travelers who have just arrived from abroad. For the first time, I wondered whether such a welcome sign still fits the times we live in and whether all travelers are genuinely welcome in Britain, regardless of their national, cultural, ethnic and religious origins. I first arrived in 2000 as a student, and I later returned to begin an academic career. Britain had always struck me as a far more tolerant and multicultural nation than many of its European neighbors, and my experiences in typically highly diverse academic spaces reinforced this impression.
Still, from the middle of the 2000s onward, cracks started to show in this façade, when I heard overseas doctoral students tell me about the increasing problems they faced renewing their visas. These reports not only mentioned steeply rising costs, but also an increasingly unwelcoming attitude on the part of the immigration authorities. And yet, these reports could be attributed to the rigid mentality that characterizes bureaucracy around the world.
After 2010, signs emerged that could not be so easily dismissed anymore. Perhaps because my research had turned towards questions of migration and multiculturalism, I became more acutely aware of the hostile attitude towards immigrants on the part of most of the British press and a significant part of the country’s political class. The Daily Mail will regularly decry transnational marriages as ‘sham marriages,’ when my own research on the matter pointed me to the diversity of transnational families and highlighted how frequent they had become in Britain. The Immigration Act 2014 has even incorporated rhetoric about ‘sham marriages’ into the law, marking a frightening parallel between tabloid journalism and legislation. The new home secretary sent her infamous vans into ethnically diverse neighborhoods, ostensibly to encourage illegal immigrants to go home. UKIP gained in public prominence and popularity. And so forth. Nonetheless, all these events seemed like exceptions in an otherwise tolerant and open public environment.
The EU referendum has fundamentally changed this. The openly xenophobic leave campaigns won, legitimizing anti-immigrant sentiment in public life and politics. Not all ‘leave’ voters turned their back on the EU out of xenophobia, of course. However, with their votes they have legitimized the xenophobic politics of the leave campaigners. The rise in xenophobic hate crimes that followed the referendum is striking, as is the fact that even the rhetoric of government ministers may now fall into the category of hate incidents.
Leaving the European Union, Britain will need to reinvent itself, in terms of its politics, in terms of its cultural, in terms of the values that are fundamental to social life, and in terms of its relationship with the outside world. Universities will play a fundamental part in this process of reinvention. They might do so by shaping debates in favor of multiculturalism, tolerance and openness to cultural diversity. Academics, higher education managers and Britain’s academic trade union could play this role quite naturally, given the cosmopolitan nature of academic life in Britain and the extent to which British universities participate in international research networks and recruit students from abroad.
However, academia’s arguments in favor of an open society have remained surprisingly weak. The recent testimony of the University and College Union to the House of Commons’ Education Select Committee on the consequences of Brexit for higher education is a case in point (1). On the one hand, UCU’s written submission of evidence acknowledges the unease on the part of many foreign academics and students about Brexit, xenophobia and their future in Britain. On the other hand, it does not translate these concerns into a substantive argument for cultural pluralism. Instead, its argument uses higher education’s contributions to the British economy as a point of departure and sets out the potential negative economic consequences of Brexit. The following paragraph illustrates this:
“A survey of international students by Hobson’s International […] has suggested that the tone of the referendum campaign, and the increase in racist and xenophobic attacks reported since the result was announced, may be off-putting to potential new international students. This is seriously worrying since 23% of teaching income in 2014-15 came from non-EU tuition fees, meaning that a fall in international student demand could have a significant financial impact on institutions. Instead of introducing new regulations, the government priority should be to help universities to focus on the retention and recruitment of overseas students in order to avoid severe funding deficits.”
The document’s authors acknowledge that international students are concerned about the rise in xenophobia from the referendum campaign onwards. However, from this acknowledgement they derive an argument about prospective funding deficits that may result from falling international student recruitment, and they do not engage with the problem of xenophobia in any substantive way at all. This seems unconvincing. Neither academic life nor public life in general revolve entirely around economic concerns. Scholarship is in very fundamental ways shaped by values. International collaboration in higher education in this sense is the outcome of the growing pluralism of public life over the past decade. The Brexiteers in politics and the media have thrived on their continuous appeals to distinctive values – nationalist, nativist and xenophobic. If British academia seeks to maintain its international outlook, it will need to contest these values with a vocal and highly public appeal for tolerance, openness, multiculturalism. Otherwise, it might end up on the losing side of an argument it desperately needs to win.