Sovereignty, control, freedom of movement, migration, economic growth, trade deals, the customs union, the Northern Ireland border. Lots of issues have become part of the debate about Brexit. You’ll have your own views on how informed and enlightening the media coverage is on these and other Brexit-related questions.
One thing is clear: Brexit has already affected the UK’s relationships with other countries and, whatever happens, there are likely to be more profound changes to come. Those changes will inform the world the next generation of young people will grow up in, shaping their views, ideas and outlooks. Their experiences of other countries will be different to previous generations, and their interactions with overseas people and cultures will be clouded by how Brexit has been perceived by our international friends.
Every time I have travelled abroad since the Brexit vote, I have been questioned about the UK people’s motives in voting to leave the EU. Not surprisingly, many have viewed it as anti-internationalist and presumed that the UK is not interested in being a major player in the new world order that will emerge. It’s very difficult to counter this impression, given the jingoistic nationalism from some commentators.
Sadly, the one area that can help to develop relationships with people from other countries has been serially overlooked. Colleges and universities have a proud track record of student exchanges, twinning with counterparts in other countries and helping our young people to simply meet and befriend "foreigners". Given that all of us are naturally inclined to be wary of the new and different, this experience of people from other countries, which colleges and universities enable, cannot and should not be allowed to diminish. There is no doubt that those experiences will have contributed greatly to understanding, empathy and tolerance – all traits we should cherish and develop.
It’s worrying that there has been so little attention paid to the international role of colleges and students because the impact is already being felt. My counterparts in the US, Canada and Australia have all half-jokingly thanked me for Brexit because it has already helped their colleges to recruit international students in far greater numbers. We are in danger of losing out even more just at the time when there is increasing demand for technical training, as emerging economies look for support, expertise and advice on how to develop their education and skills systems and their people. From a purely economic perspective, that is not good news for the UK.
The wider social impact is equally as worrying. I’m sure that there is a link between the rise in nationalism, populism and jingoism, with growing concerns about racial intolerance, unconscious bias and prejudice. An ICM poll published today, commissioned by The Guardian, focuses on everyday experiences of prejudice that could be a result of unconscious bias. The results are disturbing and show that unconscious bias has a negative effect on the lives of Britain’s 8.5 million people from minority backgrounds. It describes unconscious bias as the "quick decisions conditioned by our backgrounds, cultural environment and personal experiences".
Hearts and minds
The whole education system needs to be alert to this, for surely it is in our schools, colleges and universities that we should be opening people’s hearts and minds to what we share with every other citizen, irrespective of their nationality, race, background, views and ideas.
The government needs to provide more support for colleges to be outward-facing, and for students and staff to be able to connect with other countries. Our survey into international activity shows that most colleges are engaged already, but most are also struggling in the face of lack of understanding, red tape and unhelpful rules. There are three simple steps we would urge the government to take.
Three steps in the right direction
The first is to reinforce the short term reassurances about Erasmus+ funding and make a long-term commitment. Erasmus+ funding is supporting thousands of students to experience life, study and people overseas, as well as helping our colleges to host international students. Both will become increasingly important to support a more tolerant society.
The second is to support and promote colleges to recruit more overseas students. The current requirements and red tape undermine the role colleges can play, with difficult visa rules that increase risk. Simpler and more helpful visa arrangements, allowing college students to work part-time and after they have finished their studies, would help so much.
Third, there is an urgent need to clarify the status and position of EU27 students looking to study in the UK after 2020, and whether the entry clearance regulations and tuition fee arrangements that currently apply to non-EU students across the four nations will also apply to them. The numbers across the whole college system are low, at about 2 per cent of overall student numbers, but in some colleges the numbers are much higher. And the impact on individuals could be profound.
We all know that the Brexit vote has changed our nation and our international standing already. Let’s look to education to ensure that we remain a proudly internationalist, open, free and tolerant country.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges