Letter from London: The “Brexit” and Academic Mobility

Earlier this month, Universities UK held their International Unit’s annual summit. We work closely with this organization, which will become a Generation Study Abroad commitment partner, and their newsletter is an excellent window into the issues, concerns, and developments shaping the international exchange field in Europe. For several years Universities UK has asked me to speak at one of the sessions, but I was unable to do so. As it turns out, that was fortunate. Elections are big in the UK this year.

When I first received and accepted this year’s invitation, it was with some trepidation. The panel was described as an opportunity to discuss a very controversial topic related to mobility and open doors. Ultimately, the focus was on “Brexit” and the referendum scheduled for June on whether or not the UK will remain in the European Union.

From a higher education and international exchange perspective, there are quite a few concerns as a number of Vice Chancellors made clear. UK universities benefit in many ways from EU research funding, scholar mobility, the more than 100,000 European students who have come to the UK via the Erasmus program.

My role was to assess what impact a potential UK withdrawal from the EU would have on the US-UK relationship. Very little was my answer, given how strong the institutional bonds are between our countries and universities.

But it was really eye opening for me to see that my news did not bring much relief. UK higher education leaders seemed more worried about being cut off from Europe. For all the problems making headlines today about what is not working in Brussels and how the EU is managing (or not) the refugee crisis, there was consensus at this summit that everything would be much worse off without an EU.

As special as the US-UK relationship is, I learned that in some quarters there are very special things happening at the forefront of science, medicine, and teaching that makes Europe special too.