As Brexit Britain appears headed straight for a chaotic exit from the European Union, its universities are raising questions about their future with growing alarm. An article in the 4 September Guardian reflects the prevalent mood in academia:
British universities have called on the government to reintroduce a visa that would allow overseas students to stay in the country to work for up to two years after graduation. They say it would give the UK a competitive edge over rival countries and help it maintain the 450,000 international students, 134,835 of them EU-born, who come to study in Britain every year. Universities UK, the sector’s umbrella body, said in a briefing to parliament on Tuesday: ‘The UK remains an extremely popular destination for international students, attracting more students from abroad except the much larger US. ‘However, the UK’s closest competitors, such as the USA, Australia, France and Germany, all continue to grow at a faster rate than the UK.’ While student numbers in 2014-15 rose by 9.4% in the US, 10.7% in Australia and 8.7% in Germany, the UK rate was 0.5%.
This article is interesting in three ways. First, it documents British universities’ increasingly urgent efforts to maintain a large population of international students after Britain’s departure from the European Union. Second, it reflects a public discourse in which universities are understood purely in terms of a set of economic transactions, and international students are regarded purely as a ‘revenue stream’. (For more examples of this discourse, see here and here. Also take a look here.) Third, being entirely concerned with the economic dimensions of international student recruitment, it fails to consider the consequences which Brexit Britain’s resurgent nationalism will have for the country’s universities and, by extension, for international students who choose to come to the UK.
The politics of Brexit have been driven – let’s be frank – by a fierce xenophobia and a hot-headed nationalism. It’s a xenophobia so fierce and a nationalism so hot-headed that even now, after two years of increasingly dire warnings about the consequences of the country’s withdrawal from the EU, public opinion has only barely, if at all (1, 2, 3), shifted towards ‘remain’. In contrast, British universities have long taken pride in their internationalism, their cosmopolitan student body, and their widely international staff of scholars. The fact that cosmopolitan academia is being jeopardised by Brexit is now being debated. The consequences which post-Brexit nationalism will have for universities, students, and scholars are hardly being discussed at all. There have been a scattered news reports on academics who have faced visa troubles in the context of increasingly heavy-handed migration policies. (For an example, see the following.) However, there is no systematic public conversation about the long-term implications which Britain’s turn towards nationalism will have for academic life.
It would be remiss for Britain’s academic leaders to take their universities’ largely open, tolerant and international environment for granted. For examples of the fact that things do not have to be so, they might look at South Korea. A highly developed nation with an export-oriented economy, a globalised pop culture, and an urbane way of life, South Korea’s universities can still be usefully described as ethnically segregated. To bolster their standing in international rankings and their revenues, South Korean universities in recent years have done much to recruit foreign academics and students. Nonetheless, reports of on-campus exclusion, discrimination, and segregation about (see 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). A recent study at one of the country’s elite universities, neatly summarised here, concludes that ‘diversity is just for show’:
At the interpersonal level, both Korean and foreign students report very low levels of cross-cultural interaction. Foreign students often report experiencing cultural chauvinism and ethnocentrism in their encounters with Korean students. A female student from Iran studying at a top Korean university, for instance, said in an interview with us that: ‘my Korean acquaintances are not interested in getting to know other cultures. They seem to like to live among themselves in their own ways.’ […] Foreign faculty, too, rather than being valued as full, contributing members of their academic communities, are often perceived as temporary skilled labour. Korean universities employ them largely to help boost their global credentials: the numbers of foreign faculty, their ability to publish in international journals and teach courses in English all help to raise domestic and international university rankings. There is also a tendency among Koreans to perceive foreign faculty as ‘second-tier’ scholars who were unable to secure employment in their countries of origin. ’I don’t feel valued here,’ said one foreigner, explaining his reasons for choosing to leave his tenure-track position at a prestigious Korean university.
This pattern of discrimination and exclusion has deep historical roots in South Korea’s colonial and post-colonial history (see here for more). In a nation in which discourses of racial purity have long been central to national identity (see here for more), academic internationalism is a hard sell, and it requires institutional changes that seem only achievable in the long term.
Conversely, Britain’s history of academic internationalism will be hard to erase even in a social environment that is becoming increasingly hostile towards foreigners. Nonetheless, it seems remiss to discuss this academic internationalism only in terms of the financial gains it yields, and to avoid a much more difficult conversation about the socio-cultural consequences which Brexit nationalism will have for academic life.