Brexit and the Crisis of Academic Cosmopolitanism

Border Control at Heathrow
Welcome to the United Kingdom. Now please leave. (Photo: eGuideTravel/Flickr)

I left the United Kingdom in early 2017, in anticipation of the consequences which Brexit would likely entail for me. I had first come to the UK from Germany in 2000, to study sociology in an academic environment that I found intellectually challenging, vibrant and cosmopolitan. The diverse national and cultural backgrounds of students and academic staff at British universities were a particularly important reason for me to move to the UK.

By the time I left the UK 17 years later, I felt much less certain about both my own prospects as an immigrant in the UK and the future of cosmopolitanism in British academia. When I arrived in the UK in 2000, I did not think of myself as an immigrant, having been accepted without question at my university. Equally, when I later went on to work at British universities, I encountered academic communities that strongly valued diversity and a cosmopolitan mindset. I was of course conscious of the inequalities beneath this commitment to cosmopolitanism, such as the fact that academic staff, particularly in senior positions, were predominantly white and Western. Still, with all its imperfections, British academia at the time to me seemed to be far more tolerant and open to diversity than its parochial German counterpart.

Then, in 2016, things began to change. Travelling on a train from London to Oxford, I found myself aggressively challenged for holding a conversation in Spanish on my mobile phone. Other incidents of this sort followed, and friends and colleagues began to speak of similar experiences. Following the referendum, it became clear that my permanence in the UK would not be assured after the country’s departure from the European Union. And so I found a job elsewhere and left.

Since then, I still follow developments in British academia from afar. I am struck by the damage that Brexit is doing both to the international reputation of UK universities and their economic standing. A few days ago, for example, I received an e-mail newsletter from Die Zeit, a major German weekly newspaper. This newsletter carries the headline “UK researchers avoid Horizon 2020.” Drawing on a report by the Royal Society, it points out that the number of UK applications to the EU research grant scheme Horizon 2020 has dropped by 40 percent since the EU referendum in 2016; that British universities attracted 500 million Euros less in research funding than in 2015; and that the number of prestigious Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowships dropped from 515 to 336 in the same time span.

Recently, Die Zeit also published an interview with Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, the current resident of the Royal Society. Under the heading “Who would still want to work here?” Ramakrishnan makes a case for a university system that continues to be internationally minded, and he argues that he so far sees no reason for foreign academics not to come to the UK. Nonetheless, he admits that Brexit will have serious consequences for research and research funding, and for the country’s image as “unwelcoming and xenophobic”.

Taken together, these news items offer two conclusions. On the one hand, they suggest that a certain combination of powerful values – notably, it seems, English nationalism – and instrumental reasons – notably the opportunity to deregulate and institute a harsher variety of capitalism across the UK – may be more important to the currently dominant sectors of the British establishment than the obvious damage done to the country’s universities. Second, they point to the willful decoupling of British academia from international academic collaboration, at least within the European Union. The indicators of economic loss cited above speak to the cessation of British-European joint research projects, to the decline of researchers’ international mobility to the UK, and, on the whole, to a weakening of international intellectual exchange.

Against this backdrop, academic cosmopolitanism will have to be reinvented. The defense of cosmopolitanism and internationalism as values to be pursued for their own sake is notably absent from public debates about Brexit and its consequences for Britain’s universities. Instead, one hears and reads much – perhaps, on balance, too much — about the economic consequences of Brexit. Thus, the aforementioned report by the Royal Society highlights related financial losses, while its president in his interview with Die Zeit emphasizes the need for universities to produce economically useful knowledge. Such economic arguments will make a less than compelling case for open-minded, tolerant and in some sense cosmopolitan academic spaces at a time when borders are being re-erected and academics are being openly threatened with expulsion by the British authorities (1, 2, 3). Telling foreign scholars and students that they are welcome as drivers of economic productivity and ‘revenue streams’ for their host institutions is just not very convincing. British universities will need to look beyond the economic side of academic life and rebuild the case for cosmopolitanism as an end in itself. If they do not, who will still want to work there?

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Daniel Nehring

My career so far has taken me to a fairly wide range of places, and this has allowed me to experience a wide range of approaches to sociology and social science. In my blog, I reflect on this diversity and its implications for the future of the discipline.

Over the last few years, I have also become interested in exploring the contours of academic life under neoliberal hegemony. Far-reaching transformations are taking place at universities around the world, in terms of organisational structures, patterns of authority, and forms of intellectual activity. With my posts, I hope to draw attention to some of these transformations.

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