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Educators quick to respond to Brexit vote

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • UK voters have decided – by a 52:48 margin – to leave the European Union
  • British educators and peak bodies have been quick to comment on the importance of a continuing commitment to internationalisation and of progressive immigration policies to support staff and student mobility

In a move that surprised observers around the world, rocked currency rates and stock exchanges, and ran against the projections of most recent polls, UK voters opted for a Brexit – an exit from the European Union – in yesterday’s referendum vote. The final tally arrived in the middle of the night in the UK and showed that the “leave” side had claimed 52% of the ballots cast in one of the highest voter turnouts in the UK in decades.

The close vote reflects a contentious and increasingly divisive debate in the months-long run-up to the 23 June referendum. And it opens the door to a period of political and economic uncertainty as Britain now moves to redefine and renegotiate its relations with Europe and the rest of the world.

“The British people have spoken and it is no use dismissing what they have said,” offered The Guardian in a morning editorial. “But there is no use, either, in wishing away the many, profound and – in some cases – dangerous consequences of the vote to leave the European Union. Britain’s place in the world will now have to be rethought…The country’s very idea of itself will have to be reimagined and deep strains on the state’s fabric – between a pro-European Scotland and Northern Ireland, and an anti-European England and Wales – will have to be addressed.”

Brexit sentiment also appears to have been split among generational lines, with younger voters (and even those below voting age) skewing much more to the “remain” side of the debate. “This vote doesn’t represent the younger generation who will have to live with the consequences,” said one widely circulated post on Twitter.

Unfortunately, the consequences of a decision to leave the EU may be visited on Britons of all ages sooner than later. The British pound lost roughly 10% of its value against the US dollar in the morning after the vote, touching its lowest exchange rate in more than 30 years. Many analysts, including those at the British Treasury, have widely predicted that a Brexit vote would push the UK into a recession.

The Bank of England has moved quickly in an attempt to calm jittery investors and analysts. Financial markets, however, abhor uncertain conditions and the one clear thing about the referendum result so far is that there will now be plenty of uncertainty to go around. For its part, EU leaders have already said that they now expect the UK to leave the union “as soon as possible” in order to minimise any such confusion for all concerned.

Educators weigh in

Academic institutions and education associations in the UK had been staunch advocates for the “remain” vote in the referendum campaign, and many were quick to react to the results.

“Leaving the EU will create significant challenges for universities,” said Universities UK President Dame Julia Goodfellow. “Although this is not an outcome that we wished or campaigned for, we respect the decision of the UK electorate.”

“Throughout the transition period our focus will be on securing support that allows our universities to continue to be global in their outlook, internationally networked and an attractive destination for talented people from across Europe. These features are central to ensuring that British universities continue to be the best in the world.”

Reflecting on the importance of immigration policy within the referendum debate, English UK Chair Steve Phillips added, “As the UK goes forward after the referendum, we urge the government to remember that while there has been a great deal of debate about immigration, the majority of people in the UK do not classify students as migrants. They understand that students stay for a short while and then return home – often to influential positions – with positive views of the UK.”

“We want the government to consider a more student-friendly visa regime, including removing students from net migration figures. Our competitors are demonstrating that they welcome students from all over the world with more accommodating visa regimes and positive rhetoric. We need the same.”

Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, underscored the importance of stability in his comments: “Whatever the future holds for Britain once it leaves the EU, colleges and their students must be properly supported. Colleges are currently planning their budgets for 2016/17 and uncertainty over the future of their funding leaves them unable to plan accurately for the coming year. The Government must make it clear as soon as possible how it will continue to fund education and training for the good of everyone.”

“This will clearly send very worrying signals to thousands of EU students (and indeed British students hoping to participate in EU mobility programmes) but given the government’s relentless pressure to cut net migration it is perhaps not surprising that this has been the result,” added UK Council for International Student Affairs Chief Executive Dominic Scott.

“We are convinced though that everyone will do everything in their power to find ways to ensure as much continued mobility as possible and students currently here need to be re-assured that, as far as we understand it, there will be virtually no consequences for them whatsoever. For others though we must wait and see but it may be many months before any of this becomes clear.”

Indeed, student surveys in advance of the 23 June referendum indicated that a Brexit could discourage international students from choosing the UK, which, if borne out, would be a further blow to British institutions and schools that have been faced with challenging immigration and trading conditions in recent years.

One of the large questions that will hang over the Brexit decision is whether or not the UK remains a welcoming and open destination for international students. As was the case before the 23 June vote, much of the work in responding to this challenge will fall to individual institutions and to peak bodies in the UK, many of which have already been quick to assert their continued commitment to internationalisation, and student and faculty mobility in particular, in the immediate aftermath of the referendum result.

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