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Research Fortnight 600

Brexit: What could possibly go wrong? John Whitfield has some suggestions.

This week’s Research Fortnight [24/11/2021] reports on two curiously parallel demonstrations in London and Cambridge. In the capital, a crowd of left-wing activists celebrated the closure of UBS’s London operation, as the bank moved 90 per cent of its London staff to its new EU headquarters in Frankfurt.

Of the chants, “We’ll be better off without you” ranks among the more printable. A photo of a home-made placard reading “Don’t forget to flush your cocaine down the toilet before going through airport security” was retweeted more than 1,000 times.

At the same time in Cambridge, the campaign group Had Enough of Experts held a public meeting and rally. The message to the academics that have left the university and the companies that have left the region was the same as that directed at bankers: if you don’t want to stay, we didn’t want you anyway. Speakers attacked academics as a rootless elite, loyal only to whoever pays their grants. “Citizens of nowhere go home,” read one sign. 

Whatever else you might say about the past five years, it has been a golden age for the home-made placard.

Ministers are reportedly surprised that many of the researchers leaving are from outside the EU. In response, you could point to the hostility towards immigrants visible in the media and historic levels of hate crime. Quasi-terrorist initiatives such as the Facebook group formed to encourage violence against the 20 academics named as enemies of the people by Breitbart UK have not led to any actual attacks. Even so, foreign-born experts find themselves at the intersection of public antipathies.

You could also, of course, point to the UK’s April 2019 ejection from European research funding and networks, and the government’s failure to keep its pledge to match EU research funding post-Brexit.

Had Enough of Expert’s position, though, is not so much an accusation as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Those UK universities with the reputation and resources to do so have responded to Brexit by adopting the banks’ playbook, off-shoring their activities and chasing the most favourable regulatory regimes.

Malia Obama turning down, reputedly on parental advice, a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford in favour of a year in Berlin exemplifies universities’ problems in recruiting international students. It’s no use having a cash cow if it thinks your milking parlour is uncool. And a Teaching Excellence Framework-enabled fees hike and the sale of the student loan book to Wonga have chilled domestic enrolment.

Universities, therefore, have decided that if the talent won’t come to them, they must go to the talent. Many of the academics leaving Cambridge the city will remain with Cambridge the university at its new Helsinki site. Seven others have already announced EU campuses. Edinburgh is taking no chances: by setting up shop in Graz, it will maintain a European beachhead even in the unlikely event of Scotland remaining part of the UK.

The government can congratulate itself that the combination of Brexit and the 2017 higher education bill has prompted our universities to become truly globalised. Those that can are moving to more hospitable climes, those that can’t are going out of business. Either way, we’re all left behind now—not, perhaps the vision of national unity that Theresa May had in mind.

Still, one must look for good news, and opening up the market to private providers has attracted one high-profile new entrant. After buying up the premises of two defunct institutions in a “fantastic, really very good” deal, the UK branches of the reborn Trump University have recently welcomed their first students. Perhaps, to quote the president’s tweet, “Trump U can make Britain great again”.

John Whitfield is Research Fortnight’s comment and analysis editor.

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This article also appeared in Research Fortnight‘s 500th issue, guest edited by Andre Geim