June 23rd, 2016 is etched on the nation’s memory, not only because it was a day when the pollsters, punters and polis would have their respective says and day of reckoning, but somehow life in the days that followed quite literally felt as if the earth had been jolted from its axes and shifted more than a few degrees off on a different course. Night would no longer follow day in quite the same way.
Around the bars, coffee houses and dining tables, most of the chattering classes –a term used Singapore’s former Prime Minister, Lee Kwan Yew to refer to the middle classes – sipped their beers, expressos and wines, confident their Referendum vote that day – to ‘stay in’ or ‘leave’ Europe – would confirm the Brits would stay. To be sure the British relationship with its continental cousins has never been an easy one. But at the same time, cheap travel, holiday homes and retirements in the Mediterranean, the UK’s dependence on an international labour force across multiple industries, were all reasons to cling to the hope that a more open-minded, and if not cosmopolitan then a pragmatic, attitude would win the day.
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. In the early hours of the 24th June, the direction of travel in the results was visible. By 4.00 am, the decision was clear. The UK had voted ‘LEAVE’. After months of turbo-charged boosterism by both Eurosceptics and Europhiles about the economic and political benefits to be had from leaving or staying, the distinct feeling was that if not sanity, then the tendency toward the status quo would hold the day. The Machiavellian manoueverings of those with political careers to be made and prejudices to be aired would be outed by a now weary sensible voting citizenry, eager to get on with a reluctant summer.
When a decision that big has the capacity to change the course of a nation, not only has the earth’s axis moved but so, also, has the very fabric of the lives and fortunes and futures of whole groups. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, resigned immediately. So, too, did his right hand man, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Two of the contenders to the now vacant top job in this now post-referendum show-down were quick to draw their swords on each other, and twist the blade. Nursing an ambition to be Prime Minister from her teenage years, Theresa May stepped into the breach, donning the crown pronouncing in her new role, Brexit Means Brexit.
But what does ‘Brexit Means Brexit’, really mean? It is easy to draw the conclusion this was an informed vote to leave Europe, and at one level it was. But the voter profiles tell us that in many ways this was a vote made by those who have been left behind in the globalisation race. Falling wages, fewer opportunities for decent, properly-paid work, the collapse in social mobility – when contrasted with the concentration of wealth in a tiny economic elite whose fortunes have been enabled by the political elite – and the conclusion stares you in the face. This was a working class protest (albeit also racist) vote cast by those who tried to turn the hands of time back in search of being great again. As writers like Thomas Piketty have shown, the working and middle classes paid dearly for the excesses of the banking sector and its eruption in a spectacular global financial meltdown in 2008. The sadness here is that they have let themselves be hoodwinked into blaming migrants rather than the greedy upper classes for their diminished fortunes.
But ‘Brexit Means Brexit’ – if it does, eventually, lead to exit – will have major consequences for education, and most particularly for higher education. The basic economic facts of the matter are all too stark. 13% of undergraduate students, 38% of post graduates, and 28% of academic staff, come from outside the UK. And whilst clearly not all of these students and academics are from Europe, many are. But decision to leave, with its racist undertones promoted by right wing parties like UKIP, narrow minded tabloids, and right-wing Euro-sceptics has meant that being ‘from somewhere else’ in post referendum Britain has left many feeling unwelcome.
The university sector has not just depended on this continental labour markets, but European students have buoyed the universities dwindling coffers with much needed finances, whilst its towns and cities have benefited from the costs that are incurred in simply getting on with normal life; rents, services, food.
The UK university sector has also been a major beneficiary of research funds – close to 0.8 billion pounds per year go into the sector. With the UK set full sail ahead with is compass set in the direction of becoming a competitive knowledge-based economy, much of its necessary ballast – funds, brains, confidence in the future – is in jeopardy.
There is little doubt that in the days and weeks that will now follow, what Brexit actually turns out to mean will be the stuff of very difficult politics. Behind all this political certainty is complexity, and the potential for considerable chaos and heightened xenophobia. Divorces this difficult generally result in losses for all, aside from the lawyers.
But it does also have important implications for those of us who think a lot about what role education could play in reshaping our social worlds so we share the benefits of our labours more equally. Is it possible for educators to spark a global debate about the wider and deeper causes of growing social inequality – so that those casting their votes – whether for staying or leaving – have a chance to think about narrow minded nationalisms, political opportunism, and the consequences of neoliberal capitalism…the list goes on? What political decisions do we want made that in turn create the conditions for producing more open-minded, tolerant individuals, who value rather than vilify those whose fortunes and futures are, at the end of the day, not much different to their own.
If there is any vilifying, perhaps the target could be the unchecked nature of unfettered capitalism and those it has benefitted. Now there’s a fight worth having, and a vote worth casting. Let’s vote for CAPEXIT.
Editor’s Note: Susan L. Robertson is Professor of Sociology of Education in the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. Her research is concerned with the changing nature of education as a result of transformations in the wider global, regional and local economies and societies, and the changing scales on which ideas, power and politics is negotiated. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org