On June 23rd 2016 the Brexit campaigners won the referendum to leave the European Union with 52% (Leave) against 48% (Remain). With a turnout of 30 million voters (71.8% of the population), the result showed a deep divide in British society. However, in the higher education sector, the picture looked decisively different. According to a Times Higher Education survey (Morgan, 2016) 88.5% of staff at universities declared their support for Remain prior to the referendum and only 9.5% were in favour of leaving the EU; 2.1% were undecided. Out of ten academics, that is, nine were in favour of remaining in the EU. Despite this strong rejection of the Brexit, the effects of the referendum and the political changes will be, and are already, acutely felt in this sector, within and outside the UK.
Scholars are also worried about the impact on the internationalisation efforts of HE institutions in the UK, as one of the main political drivers behind the success of the Leave campaign was the restriction of the mobility of people and the rise of populist nationalism that threaten recent progress in some of the key themes of the internationalisation agenda. There is not a standardised model or approach to internationalisation (Knight, 2015), but the integration of international academic staff sets a common ground to define a depth dimension of international universities (Sanderson, 2008).
EU academics represent a group of international staff that enjoys the right to work in another Member State and be treated on an equal footing with nationals of that Member State (see: Article 45 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union) but it could change after Britain officially withdraws as a member state from the EU. Professor Margaret Wintermantel, head of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD, n.d.) stated that there are 32,000 non-British EU academics making up 17% of the UK’s teaching and research posts, with the figure topping 20% at higher-ranking universities. While academics are not the main target group of this anti-immigration sentiment, their lives will, however, be strongly affected by any changes in immigration policy.
This project aims to explore how academics from European member states experience, conceptualise and respond to the unfolding and shaping of the Brexit, with a particular view on how this phenomenon is assimilated as an element of the discussions about the internationalisation of HE in the UK. Therefore, our goal is two-fold: on the one hand, we want to understand how these major political changes affect European academics at personal (subjective) and professional level (instrumental). On the other hand, we want to investigate how their reactions might influence, in turn, the landscape and diversity of British universities and their understanding and implementation of Internationalisation.
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