I was in the UK last week, and what a week to be there. The whole country was rocked by the Leave vote, but yet I didn’t meet one person who claimed s/he had voted for Brexit. Of course, talking to university officials I wasn’t expecting any of them to be celebrating the referendum results, but they were downright despondent and pessimistic, especially about the future of postsecondary education. Made me feel right good to be part of the Canada we are living in today, even with all its imperfections.
There’s nothing like the BBC for full news coverage. Panel after panel inspected every conceivable angle of the vote. And while the talking experts were offering opinion and analysis, dramatic events kept interrupting them in breaking-news fashion. By the end of the week it seemed obvious that the country was largely rudderless, with only the purposeful head of the Scottish National Party filling the leadership void. That is an irony still unraveling, to be sure.
More enlightened commentary acknowledged that the Leavers were not a monolithic cohort of disgruntled racists—although there is definitely some of that, about which more in a moment. Globalization and all its discontents certainly had a hand in it, with underemployed and under-resourced pockets of the country sticking it to the London bankers and to the largely ineffectual, overly bureaucratic EU itself. This has made for some strange political bedfellows, as ultimately the right and left wings of the voting spectrum found themselves on the same side of Brexit. For once and not such a brief moment it looks as if there might not always be an England, at least not as Vera Lynn sang of her.
I was there to take some meetings in London and then on to Harlow for an annual general meeting and a Harlow Board retreat. There, too, staff and board members kept returning nervously to the theme of uncertainty. Here we were, intent on dreaming of ways to expand Harlow’s opportunities, not only for our own Newfoundland-based students but for European students, as well—still a generally untapped pool of learners. We couldn’t help but qualify most of our conversation with asides about Brexit and the unknown rules and regulations ahead. Consensus was that the next two years would be spent sorting out the fall-out, since no one knows what will happen to all the agreements and exchanges and funding pockets that relied on Britain remaining part of the EU.
But onwards. Harlow is ours and we need to commit to harnessing its superb location and rich opportunities, EU or no EU.
Complicated as the reasons for the Leave vote might be, it is true that the referendum fuelled an ugly xenophobic impulse in the land. Following the announcement of the Leave victory a number of really horrendous incidents of racism have been reported all over England. You just need to glance at the BBC website to see the list of these. British-born citizens who look or talk different (!) are being told to leave the country and go back to where they came from. Poles, Muslims, Welsh, you name it—all being openly derided, urged to get out. It’s pretty disgusting.
Racism is everywhere and we are not immune from it, no matter how rosy Canada feels these days. As the only university in this province, Memorial has a “special obligation to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.” I have always thought that welcoming international students here was a natural extension of that obligation. Every now and then in conversation someone notes that we should not be “subsidizing” international students (as much as we do). “We” generally means the NL taxpayer, right? I am always a bit disheartened by such statements, because they could very well be the thin edge of a more mean-spirited wedge. I hope not, but I suspect I am right. It’s the tendency to see people as not-us. As them.
I could easily rant about what’s wrong with all this. This province has some enormous demographic challenges. To put it bluntly, we are ageing, a condition that leads directly to death, and we are not reproducing—not fast enough, anyway. More people are dying off than are being born, and as the population gets older the pool of learners shrinks. There are so many reasons for attracting international students to our shores, populating the university and the workforce being an important one. A healthy population needs to be diversified in every way. The main course of such diversification is this university. Young people will not come here, with very few exceptions, for any other reason but to study. And without an influx of such people what sort of future do we have? We need to be attracting all eligible candidates to Memorial, offering them not only a rich experience but the promise of employment here, a way to make a contribution to their destination of choice. We should be careful to avoid stigmatizing them, or seeing them as other, as not worthy of public support. That way lies the fear and madness of a Brexit.