Brexit Summit on Colleges and Universities – all you need to know

Published

Credit: @AileenMcKechnie

Bronagh McGeary
Deputy News Editor

In discussing Scotland’s future after March 2019, it was not a question of when Scotland would leave the EU, but if it did

The Brexit Summit on Colleges and Universities, hosted at the University of Glasgow earlier today, brought together colleges, universities and higher education-related sector leaders in Scotland with the slogan #TogetherForEducation. The overall mood in the room seemed to be overwhelmingly in favour of stopping Brexit altogether at best, and limiting its impact at worst.

In discussing the concerns and realities of a post-Brexit Scotland, the future of European and Scottish students, EU research funding and partnership in Horizon 2020 were put forth for discussion. The theme of collective European values was consistently re-iterated, giving the entire summit not merely a sentiment of inclusivity, but a collective support for a People’s Vote to halt the Brexit process. In discussing Scotland’s future after March 2019, it was not a question of when Scotland would leave the EU, but if it did. In addition, it was made clear that Universities Scotland would retain a neutral status if a second EU referendum were to occur – a point of contention for many in attendance.

The summit attempted to summarise the growing and immediate concerns Scottish Higher Education institutions are facing with regards to Brexit, inviting several speakers to share their perspectives on the potentially catastrophic consequences of leaving a union Scotland has been a member of for over forty years. Throughout the duration of the summit, it was clear that the majority of the speakers view the only desirable solution is to halt the Brexit process and remain in the European Union, aligning with “polling evidence [..] showing this increasingly to be the public’s favoured option”. The resounding tone of the Summit was undeniably pro-European; all speakers emphasised that remaining in the EU was absolutely vital for the future of Higher Education in Scotland. They stressed the need for positive and inclusive values, undeniably to drown out any xenophobic sentiments of Brexiteers.

With a 9% fall in non-British EU students coming to Russell Group Universities in 2017-18 following Brexit, the status of Scottish universities as European hubs of research and talent is under threat. Professor Anton Muscatelli, Principal of the University of Glasgow, views Brexit as “the most unhinged example of national self-sabotage in living history”. Aligning with this notion of national self-sabotage, Muscatelli confessed: “If I were one of the politicians allowing this to happen right now I’d be unable to sleep at night”.

With the growing concerns voiced by Brexiteers in the media targeting the “academic elite” and their stance on Brexit, Muscatelli points out that “it is the elites that can afford to ride out the consequences of Brexit, and it is the ordinary people that will face the consequences”. In distancing himself from this academic elite, Muscatelli highlights the real concerns that citizens will face in a post-Brexit reality. It isn’t ordinary people that can afford to upheave their businesses to Paris or Berlin; their concerns lie in the living standards and social and employment rights that will be hit the hardest come March 2019.

In addressing the “perverse” whims of harsh Brexiteers, Mustatelli claimed Brexit itself was an act of “inter-generational vandalism”. With the status of EU students in the UK and Scottish students in the EU in jeopardy, students are already experiencing the negative effects of the 2016 referendum vote. This “inter-generational vandalism” is leaving the younger generation in the dark and unable to control their own future.

Elliot Napier of the GUSRC voiced the students’ opinion, stating “we’re confused, we’re worried, and lots of us feel like we’ve had our European-ness, our plans and our future stolen from beneath our feet”. With the constant lack of coherent information along with the assurance that “nothing will change”, students are right to be concerned and have a right to demand answers. When the future life plans of thousands of students hangs in the balance, students are justified in their anger and confusion.

University of Glasgow Professor Nikolaj Gadegaard discussed the growing hostility he has felt in the last few years following the Brexit vote. Gadegaard recalls: “It’s 24 June 2016 and I’m in Edinburgh airport waiting to fly home to Denmark. [His family and himself] talked about if this is going to be a one-way ticket”. In openly stating the uncertainty staff members are currently experiencing, he is concerned with the collaborations the University will be able to maintain in the future. He states: “Collaboration shouldn’t have borders […] we need joint funded opportunities”. Securing funds to continue the groundbreaking research taking place at Scottish universities is under threat, as is Scotland’s place in Horizon 2020, the biggest EU Research and Innovation programme ever with nearly €80 billion of funding.

Audrey Cumberford, Vice Chair of College Principals’ Group of Colleges Scotland states: “Colleges have accessed over £250 million of EU funding with emphasis on apprenticeships, innovation and employability”. The presence of EU students at Scottish colleges is not to be overlooked, as “75,000 students have come from Europe to Scottish colleges – with 1 in 6 students and 10% of staff being European at Edinburgh College”. In considering the possibility of losing EU funding, Cumberford indicates: “To lose this relationship and additional source of funding and the financial and social benefits it supports” would be a nothing short of a disaster.

Mary Senior of the UCU maintained that the uncertainty, chaos and crisis of Brexit is becoming a “living nightmare” for EU students and staff at UK colleges and universities, and UCU members overwhelmingly support a new vote on Brexit. Senior fiercely criticises Theresa May’s recent comments on Europeans “jumping the queue”, stating it adds to a hostile environment where EU nationals feel both unwelcome and unwanted.

With the cultural heritage of Scottish universities, the future of Scotland’s status as an independent and international country that welcomes citizens from all over the world, and the fact it benefits from a huge amount of EU funding were discussed at length.

Scotland is known for being a welcoming and inclusive country, a sentiment reflected in the number of European students studying at Scottish institutions. Around 75,000 European students enrolled at Scottish institutions for higher education between 2012 – 2017. Minister Richard Lochhead, MSP and Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science, keynote speaker at the Brexit Summit, highlights the cultural heritage of Scottish universities and its historical links with the rest of Europe. He states that universities – especially the University of Glasgow – have “international collaboration at their core”. Scotland being dragged out of EU against its will casts a “dark shadow” across Scottish educational institutions, which will prohibit innovation from being able to flourish. With Scottish universities contributing £11 billion to the Scottish economy, the ability to source funding for research projects is vital for the progression of Scotland’s economy.

Professor Dame Anne Glover, President of Royal Society of Edinburgh, states: “We are a nation with an international outlook – always have been, still are”. This further accentuates the summit’s overwhelming sentiment of Scottish pride, and Scotland’s reputation for being a welcoming and progressive country. Referring to a number of reports carried out on the impact of Brexit, Glove says: “If you come to Scottish uni and you are Scottish student, you get an international education, because 22% of students in Scotland are international”. Glove, along with the aforementioned speakers, emphasise the vital need for European programmes such as Erasmus, Erasmus+ and Erasmus Mundus at Scottish Higher Education institutions, as they allow Scotland to retain its international outlook and status. In her concluding statement, Professor Glover conceded that “if we do leave EU, we will at least be more attractive because the £ will crash and [European students] will get more for their money. Problem is, will they even be able to get a VISA?”.

Having a somewhat nationalistic, positive attitude may just be what Scotland needs in the midst of these chaotic Brexit discussions that continue to go back-and-forth, but, as a member of the audience pointed out, is it not time for a reality check? The overwhelming sentiment of Scottish inclusivity and identity within a European framework could be construed as ideological. Freedom of movement and Scotland’s place in the single market were two points of contention, with most speakers intent on retaining both. It is encouraging the hear the welcoming attitudes of key speakers and their solidarity with EU values and EU citizens, yet how we are meant to navigate something we have absolutely no control over? Should we not be focusing on what we can do to prepare for the future of an independent UK and mitigate the impact it will have on Scotland instead of envisioning the best possible outcome? The consistent use of hypothetical futures in the event of Brexit being carried out were just that; hypothetical. The summit focused on the most desirable outcome of the Brexit process, that being that the UK would remain in the EU.

A key point raised by audience member Dr Anna Notaro of the University of Dundee, was the contradictory nature of the of the universities of Scotland remaining on the sidelines should another referendum vote present itself. The overtly political language of the Joint-statement released yesterday was viewed as hypocritical by some, as the Universities Scotland stated they would remain neutral if a People’s Vote was called to reverse the Brexit process. Professor Emeritus Sir Tom Devine of University of Edinburgh stated: “I find it astonishing that Universities Scotland will stand aside and remain in sidelines” if it comes to “epic battle” of second referendum.

In reflecting on the summit after all speakers had said their piece, Lochhead re-iterated how much damage Brexit would cause to Higher Education, and stressed the number of critical negotiations that would take place over the next few days, weeks and months. He and many members of the Scottish government are attempting to find “the best way to minimise damage” in the face of the Brexit deadline looming ever nearer.

Richard Lochhead also gave the impression that the probability of indyref 2 is highly dependent on the outcome of Brexit negotiations. The Government’s stance on Scottish independence will inevitably become a topic of discussion if another People’s Vote is put forth.

Liam McCabe, NUS Scotland President has said: “Education in Scotland is part of Scotland’s social fabric, and students studying in institutions across the country expect and deserve the very best in support, opportunities, teaching and facilities.”

“The damage Brexit will inflict on student communities, educators across our institutions, research funding and more is becoming clearer by the day. It is vital that students are heard as part of this process if we truly intend to protect the education sector in Scotland and our communities across the country.”

Editor’s note: The Glasgow Guardian believes firmly that Universities Scotland must fully support its EU staff and students by supporting the option to remain in the European Union should a second vote occur. The highly politicised nature of the joint statement does nothing for those it seeks to help if they do not officially support a remain option in this event