As principal of a further education college I’m supporting the campaign for a people’s vote on the Brexit deal.
I’m usually very careful not to get involved in party politics, because it’s an important part of a principal’s role to maintain good relationships with MPs of every political colour who support their local FE college. But this is different, because it’s beyond normal party politics. I feel it’s my duty to speak out, because so much is at stake for the young citizens who are my students. Most of them are under 18 and don’t have a vote, but the decision to leave the EU – and whether we leave with a good or bad deal (or no deal at all) – is going to have life time consequences for them.
There are three main reasons why, as an educationalist, I believe a vote on the terms of our divorce from the EU is essential.
Firstly, leaving the EU is going to be potentially very damaging to the education sector, cutting us off from valuable sources of funding and from international partnerships and research. As the flow of students from EU countries dries up, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to sustain the cultural diversity which has been such a vital element of the UK’s FE and HE sectors and which has enriched us all. Our reputation for intellectual openness will be sadly diminished, eroding our attractiveness as a country in which to study, not only with European scholars, but globally. On a practical note, it will become increasingly difficult and expensive to recruit teaching staff in shortage areas, particularly in science and technology subjects, where we’ve come to rely on staff from overseas.
Secondly, Brexit could well have a depressing effect on the employment prospects of those graduating from the education system. The vast majority of the students I talk to have grown up with the assumption that we live in a global, interconnected world, and the idea of cutting ourselves off from our nearest neighbours makes no sense at all.
The EU provides a huge jobs market for enterprising and adventurous young people, who will now face additional bureaucratic and financial barriers to studying and working in Europe. The number of British citizens living and working abroad has grown exponentially since we joined the EU, with about half working in Europe. Leaving the EU will make this option far more difficult.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, there is a fundamental issue of democratic culture. Teachers spend a lot of time and effort teaching young people the importance of evidence-based reasoning: it’s a core principle that lies at the heart of education. It’s based on a belief that rational argument, based on agreed standards of truth, should always be preferred to prejudice and wishful thinking.
There’s no doubt in my mind that the standard of debate in the 2016 referendum vote was poor. Both sides – but particularly the Leave campaign – played fast and loose with the truth and glossed over the realities of Brexit. Even if you feel the vote was a valid exercise in democracy, it was fatally flawed. We were only asked to vote on the imagined benefits of leaving the EU, not on the reality of it. Only now, with the facts of Brexit crystal clear, can we make a properly reasoned decision.
The idea being touted by some politicians – that a second vote would undermine democracy – is patently silly. Since when has a democratic vote been anti-democratic? We’ve moved on a long way from the slapstick politics of the referendum campaign. Over the past two years the evidence has been properly assembled and put before us, the arguments for and against thoroughly tested. It’s time for we, the jury, to consider a verdict based on fact, not fiction.
For the generation currently in our schools, colleges and universities, this decision will define their future. We in the education sector should speak up loudly for our students, before it’s too late.
Andy Forbes is principal of City and Islington College