2016 was a year of popular political upheaval. Britain’s decision to leave the European Union sent political shockwaves across the European continent and beyond. As the process of Britain’s exit from Europe begins, new rules and boundaries will be drawn as the UK decides whether to pursue a ‘soft Brexit’ or ‘hard Brexit’. Momentarily, it seems that the British government is determined to release itself from any obligations it has to Brussels. This will affect almost all sectors. But what effect might it have on academia?
Ambassador to the Netherlands for the European Student Think Tank, Rebecca Hogg, sat down with Professor Michael Wintle from the European Studies department at University of Amsterdam to discuss the effects of Brexit from the perspective of a British academic based at a university in the EU.
In the months before Britain’s EU Membership Referendum, what were the main concerns for British academics in European academia?
Rather than a direct effect upon universities and my own personal position [as a British academic at a university in the EU], the most worrying thing for me was the obvious growth of populism and its international effects. This was made significantly clearer by the success and result of the Brexit campaign. As a Professor of European Studies, I do not think my research or discipline will necessarily be particularly affected. I have been teaching European Studies for at least 20 years and my subject goes up and down in popularity, but that does not seem to be related to how popular the EU is.
After the results of the Brexit vote, media outlets reported that growing numbers of British researchers were already finding it difficult to receive funding from Horizon 2020, the EU’s current research programme, as well as other European funding bodies. What has been your experience with funding since the Brexit vote?
If it is a ‘hard Brexit’, Britain will have trouble leading research programmes from Horizon 2020; that is an issue as Britain has a very healthy proportion of leadership and activity within these programmes compared to other countries. British researchers will still be able to participate, but may not be able to lead in the future. In terms of funding in the months since the vote itself, the cycle of applying for money takes a long time and I have not seen the results of any committees since the Brexit vote. We will have to wait until Article 50 is triggered, and then two years after when Britain withdraws, to see what the deal is.
What was the reaction of your university after the vote in terms of their British staff? Did they do anything to reassure you of your continued employment?
No, not a word. I am not far away from retirement, so from a personal perspective I am not too concerned. However, considering the future hiring of British academics after Brexit, EU citizenship certainly makes things easier when we carry out hiring procedures. We get applications from all over the world, and it makes the hiring process simpler if someone is from the EU because we as employers do not have to go through the visa application process. But, if we want the candidate, then we will get the candidate, especially at a higher level. The university goes through the visa process with many international researchers. Hence, Britons will still be welcome in this country, even if there is a ‘hard Brexit’.
Do you feel this will benefit or hinder British-European academic collaborations?
I do not think there will be much change in my department, because we do not need much money to cooperate. We do not need electron microscopes and centrifuges like scientists; we mostly need money for travel and conferences, maybe for a research assistant, but even that is not essential. The Humanities departments will go on talking to interesting people, whether they hail from South Africa, Peru or Britain.
Have attitudes towards British academics changed in the European academic sphere since the Brexit vote? If so, how?
I do not think so. I certainly have not noticed it. I think people feel sorry for me. We, the department, were all in tears for the first week or two and people were sympathetic to my situation.
Do you think this depends upon your academic discipline? For example, you mentioned that as a Humanities professor your funding requirements are significantly less than people who work within science. Do you believe it may hinder the attitudes towards British scientists in the academic sphere?
It might do, but it is not an obvious knee-jerk reaction. People want to work with the best academics and professionals within their field, and I do not believe that that will change very fast. Having British nationality may be a slight hindrance due to ease of access, but I do not think it will be a significant barrier. For Junior Researchers, I would have thought that they will be doing what they have always done, seeking an early career in Britain and other parts of the world as well. It is not impossible to get jobs around the world, any more so than it is in Britain. When you get a little bit higher up the ladder and you are making a name for yourself, the fact that you are British will not stop you in the Netherlands or in other places.
Do you believe Brexit will harm the reputation and quality of British academia?
Britain has a big enough critical mass to operate very well post-Brexit. It does indeed do important work with other European institutions, but I do not think Brexit will bring down the reputation of British science and academia.
If Britain chooses to leave the European Union completely, leaving the single market and rejecting freedom of movement, how do you perceive this affecting your future employment and research opportunities?
I have thought in the past few months about whether I will be able to move as freely as I do now between Britain and the Netherlands, not least for family reasons. I have family in both countries and I would be most upset if restrictions were placed upon my permission to live in another country. But I do not think it will go that far. There will continue to be academic collaboration between European countries and Britain, in the same way that there is between Britain and America, Britain and China, and our other international collaborations. That will continue, somehow, whether there is a European Union or not. My optimistic conclusion is that British academics will still be considered team players, and I have not heard of anyone experiencing a rift with colleagues since the vote. I do not believe that there will be a ‘hard Brexit’ within academia. There is too much at stake. I am much more concerned about the populist route of politics, not only in Britain or in Europe, but all over the world.
What was your personal reaction to the results of the British EU Membership referendum?
I was devastated, mainly because I do not know how to deal with the level of populism that it displays. You become aware that 50% of the population has strong objections to your views, and I find that large divergence of views personally and politically alarming. For example, the case of the people of Cornwall, who receive large amounts of EU funding, voted in the majority to leave and now want reassurance from the UK government that the money will be replaced. That is the interesting and terrifying thing about populism; you would think that an area that receives massive funding from the EU would look on it favourably, but they do not. Perhaps even less so, because they are getting the support. I do not think this comes from a rational place, but from identity, nationalism or gut feelings, which are not rational at all. Identity is immensely politically powerful, so ignore it at your peril, as we have been shown over the past few months.
Professor Wintle is optimistic about the future of British-European academic collaboration, not least because academia has always been an internationally focused sector. In order to ensure that this connection remains – in academia and all other fields – I hope that the British government considers the implications of a ‘hard Brexit’, adopts a measured reaction to the populist undercurrent of British politics and softens their approach to the EU institutions.
Rebecca Hogg is the Ambassador to the Netherlands for the European Student Think Tank. She is currently a Master’s student of European Studies at the University of Amsterdam, having gained her Bachelor’s degree in French, Russian and East European Civilisations from the University of Nottingham in the UK. Rebecca spent her Erasmus year abroad as a Language Assistant in France, as an au pair in Belgium and studying the Russian language in Petrozavodsk, Russia. Her areas of interest include the culture and history of Europe, the East-West divide, Women’s Rights in Europe and the rise of nationalism and populism.