The Universities and Colleges Union (UCU), which is the main union for faculty members in UK Higher Education, is balloting its members on whether the UCU should campaign for a second referendum on Brexit. The stated justification for this ballot is that Higher Education will be significantly impacted by the terms of the UK’s exit from the EU, and therefore members should have a say on those terms. UCU has published some comment pieces arguing for and against the motion (hosted here). A second referendum on Brexit will further embitter British politics and weaken our democracy. Higher education will be affected by the policies that post-Brexit governments adopt, but UCU will have more means of influencing and contesting these once we have left the EU. Here are 7 reasons why UCU members should reject the motion.
- Would re-fighting Leave vs Remain improve British democracy and politics? Is British politics in a better condition now than 2 years ago? Might the 2016 referendum have something to do with the bitterness? With tertiary education the leading predictor of one’s referendum vote in 2016, a second referendum would give a large proportion of the population the compelling impression that the educated are prepared to stitch things up to protect their own position and to implement their preferences, regardless of any outcome at the ballot-box. Whatever the arguments you may find for a second referendum, the optics are pretty poor. Jan-Werner Müller has argued that the essence of populism is the claim that the system is rigged, and that only the populist truly represents the people. It is hard to see how a second referendum, whether or not the UK ultimately remained in the EU, would do anything other than pour petrol on the fires of real populism in the years following
- Is it sensible for UCU to campaign for a second referendum when we do not know what the question put to the country would be, nor what question the UCU would advocate for? Surely not. A key criticism of David Cameron’s decision to hold the 2016 referendum, which is in my view correct, is that the proposal being put forward was under-specified. As has become clear, a great number of institutional arrangements are compatible with the UK leaving the EU. Asking for an unwritten cheque is a huge step of trust, one that responsible leaders should avoid doing. Yet the present motion asks for exactly that.
- Do you think a second referendum would allow us to remain in the EU? Not so fast. The 2016 referendum was held because a Conservative Prime Minister could not contain the disagreements within his party over membership of the EU. A second Brexit referendum would most likely be held for the same reason: namely in the event that Theresa May is unable to command a majority in Parliament sufficient to get approval for her deal. In order to face down rebels from the European Research Group, she would offer the country a choice between ‘Leave with this deal’ and ‘Leave with no deal’. Is this something that UCU members support?
- A second referendum could increase the likelihood of the outcome that many Remainers view as the worst of all worlds, a no-deal exit. A deal/no-deal referendum would be seen by the country, rightly, as an attempt by May to escape the weaknesses of her own parliamentary position. Every mainstream voice in British public life would line up behind the deal: all the broadsheets (Telegraph excepted), the TUC, the CBI, the living former Prime Ministers, Governor of the Bank of England, implicitly the BBC. What about the electorate? We live in unpredictable times. Those who point to narrow leads for Remain in the polls should remember that the majority of polls before the referendum itself predicted a Remain victory. A chance for the poor and excluded to thumb the nose again at London and the Establishment might prove quite attractive, particularly given the ructions caused by doing so in 2016.
- Being in or out of the EU involves trade-offs in terms of UK Higher Education’s interests. These trade-offs do not come clearly down on one side or the other. The core interests for HE institutions are freedom of movement for faculty and students, so that the brightest and best minds are researching, teaching and studying in UK institutions; and funding for research. Further, UCU has an additional interest in terms of its ability to influence UK HE policy. Addressing these in turn: There is a possible but unlikely loss in terms of freedom of movement. Freedom of movement is a matter of close personal concern, most especially for European colleagues working in the UK. Moreover, taking back control of UK immigration policy was a core plank of the Leave vote in 2016, so fears that this will be curtailed are readily understandable. However, the Leave vision for post-Brexit immigration policy which both has actual influence in Westminster, and is plausible, wants to curtail low-skilled immigration (not least to protect incomes of the low-paid in the UK) and to support the high-skilled immigration that boosts the economy. HE-related migration, particularly for faculty, is in the latter camp.The most serious plausible threat is to restrictions on migration by international undergraduates. This is a legacy of May’s time at the Home Office, when she included students in the annual immigration target. The significance of HE for the UK’s balance of payments makes a change to this policy compelling, even more so after Brexit. It is also easily implemented, because merely classificatory; and it will be possible at the end of her premiership (likely in April/May 2019).
- Funding for research is likely to increase, regardless of whether Brexit happens. Brexit threatens UK-based academics’ access to the Horizon 2020 research funding framework during the period March 2019 to the final call in 2020. But the UK Government has already guaranteed the funding for existing H2020 awards, and the mutual interest in providing an ongoing basis for research collaboration makes a settlement here attractive. In any case, it would be a mistake to construe this as jeopardising the research funding available to UK academics. Rather, it changes who decides how research funding is to be distributed. Rather than having research priorities and awards decided by the European Commission, it is now open to the UK Government to disburse research funding through routes which are sensitive to national capacities and priorities, such as the Research Councils. The overarching commitment by HMG is to see spending on UK research and development increase to 2.4% of GDP by 2027 (here). The situation is parallel to agricultural subsidies, which have been guaranteed in terms of their level out to 2022, and can now be determined by DEFRA in a way that is sensitive to the needs of farmers and the impact of farming in the UK.
- UCU will have more influence after Brexit on HE policy. Policy that directly and indirectly affects UK HE will be formulated in Westminster and Whitehall alone, where UCU has a serious voice, and not Brussels, where it does not. This is an unqualified gain, and a component of the increased democratic accountability provided by Brexit. UCU members should welcome, not jeopardise, this empowerment of their union.
Thomas Simpson is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford.