As the United Kingdom’s Conservatives head for an implausible election victory, the country’s departure from the European Union seems all but certain. Already now, this entails difficult questions for UK universities. One of these questions concerns academic internationalism and the ways in which universities might engage in or disengage from scholarly life beyond the UK’s borders.
Academic internationalism – the flows of knowledge, the movements of scholars across national borders, and the cosmopolitan ethos that may accompany such flows and movements – has a long tradition in Europe, reinforced by the European Union’s breaking down of borders. In 2016, Britain voted to turn its back on this internationalism, and at present a majority of voters seems likely to double down on this decision. Then, sooner rather than later, the free movement of academics and students between Britain and continental Europe will end, as will EU-funded research collaborations and attendant knowledge exchange.
All this will likely reinforce trends that have already been underway across most of the present decade, as the UK government has made it more and more difficult for non-British and non-European academics and students to come to and stay in the UK. Much has been written recently, at least in certain newspapers, about the growing hurdles involved in navigating a hostile visa bureaucracy and paying exorbitant fees in the process (1, 2, 3).
In my own research, on Chinese-Western couples’ experiences of migration between the UK and China, I have heard similar stories. Consider, for example, the story of Sarah and Liwen. Sarah holds a PhD from a prestigious British university and then went on to join one of China’s most renowned academic institutions for her post-doctoral research, with joint UK-Chinese funding. There, she met Liwen, a Chinese postdoc with a similarly impressive academic background. Sarah and Liwen began a relationship, married, and had a child. At this point, they decided to move to the UK, to continue their academic careers there, and to be nearer Sarah’s parents. Liwen at the time had temporarily left work to be able to look after their baby. This is when a long and complicated and exhausting encounter with the UK immigration bureaucracy began.
Liwen found that he could not even gain a tourist visa to travel to the UK. In our interview, Sarah explained:
“The reasons they gave us, well, they were not satisfied that he was not trying to illegally immigrate or remain in the UK and work, probably because we don’t have a lot of money. We don’t have a lot of savings. My salary is not very high, but it’s a very (Laughter) demanding job. Yes, partly that and partly, I guess, because Liwen, he left his previous job when I was pregnant because it looked like there were going to be some difficulties with the pregnancy and his job involved travelling.
He actually gave up his job, which I think it’s funny that the British visa application people, the immigration and the department that deals with that don’t get to understand why he wasn’t in work. He left his job, essentially, to be a stay-at-home dad in the run-up to me having the baby and then when the baby was born, which, as far as I know, is not that common in China, for a man to do that. Liwen is, I guess, less traditional than some Chinese people, traditional in the sense of has certain ideas about the roles of different people in a relationship.”
The rejection letter Liwen received in response to his visa application stated clearly that future application would be very likely also be rejected, unless his circumstances changed significantly. Faced with the seemingly impossible hurdle of visiting the UK even for a short period, let alone relocating there, Liwen and Sarah abandoned their original plan and found academic work in China. At the time we met, they had both happily settled into their new life there. A number of other stories like this emerged from the aforementioned research project.
Brexit seems likely to extend the hostility of the UK immigration system to scholars from European Union countries — unless a significant change of migration politics and prevalent public attitudes towards immigration politics took place in the UK. There are no indications that the latter will happen anytime soon. As the UK thus detached itself from continental Europe, how will it be able to preserve scholarly engagement with the outside world? As with so many issues surrounding Brexit, the question remains unanswered and insufficiently debated.