Ok, this is hard to put into words. Ever since Brexit, xenophobia and racism have become mainstream discourses. This we know. Theresa May’s government is set on a ‘hard’ exit from the EU which will be economically damaging and culturally toxic, turning England into an inward-looking, nostalgic, isolated backwater. Friends and colleagues have been horrified by these events, especially those who are resident here but not UK nationals. I don't feel at home in the UK myself, so I can only guess at their feelings. Last night, a Polish woman was apparently booed on BBC Question Time for expressing these feelings, an audience who don't want to know about the pain their xenophobia is causing. I live in Wales and would dearly love for Wales to become independent (even though I was born, raised and educated in England and still work there) from an England and Englishness whose public sphere has been systematically undermined and poisoned over decades, so now The Sun – proven liars over Hillsborough and many other things – has liberty to attack Gary Lineker for ‘spreading lies’ about (i.e. showing compassion towards) refugees. It feels as though we’re one step from the Children of Men film.
I’ve seen on Twitter many calls for the 48%, or for those even who voted Leave, to stand up against this increasingly visible racism and xenophobia. Academia should be one of the biggest voices: universities are international institutions, wanting and needing to attract staff and students from across the globe, whose communities must be inclusive and progressive. This week’s news stories about international students being counted as ‘migrants’ is an urgent symptom of the universities’ failure to do so. But this isn't just to do with the economic viability, or even the social or economic life of the university (as a community rather than an institution). It’s do with what the university thinks it is for.
I work in a department of English (literature) and Creative Writing in a 1960s university that appears in the top 10 or so in all the league tables. You might think we would be strong enough, robust enough, to be able to add our voice to the resistance to racism, to xenophobia. Our department has fantastic international contacts and some of my colleagues do great work in Africa and the Middle East and elsewhere and I admire and respect that enormously. But what about here, in the UK? What’s our role? Shouldn’t we be vigorously defending the ideas and ideals on which the very concept of the university is founded?
This past week we had a departmental meeting. We discussed the Stern report, the changes in what will be the next Research Excellence Framework (the audit of our published work which bears upon how much funding we receive). We talked about student recruitment (which bears upon how much funding we receive). We talked about how we might change or improve our programme to make it more attractive. But when a colleague raised the point about the ethical implications of changes to research funding in the UK, and the folding of International Development monies into the university research budget, the question wasn’t really understood.
And thinking about it afterwards, I wish I’d been sharp enough to say something then. It was at the end of a long, 3-hour meeting in a stuffy room and my mind wasn’t as focused as it should have been. Because the ethics of what we are doing is precisely what we should be talking about. Not just ‘how to attract students’ but ‘how does the department work in relation to its community/ locality/ region’. Not ‘how can we internationalize our work’ but ‘what is the role of the department and the university, in international contexts, in an increasingly xenophobic and racist political discourse in the UK’.
And it’s easy to see why we don’t discuss this. We’re really busy, and the pressures of REF and the coming Teaching Excellence Framework are felt by us, as individuals, and as a department every day. But this instrumentalisation (in an increasingly corporate environment, the university’s own response to the shifting political and economic environment) is corrosive. We don't think of the bigger picture, because we’re too focused on the day-to-day, in implementing new university initiatives which are largely to do with maintaining its position in those league tables I mentioned, let alone the things that are great about the job: teaching and supervising students, and sometimes doing your own research and writing. We don't talk about it because in departmental meetings we are discussing all this instrumental and administrative stuff, and we don't have time to meet as a group outside of those times.
But it’s wrong.
So what do I/ we do about it? The first thing is, of course to talk about it. Something we signally failed to do this week. To make it visible, to speak up. To make sure we do discuss it, that it informs what we do, so we aren’t always speaking instrumentally, simply reflecting the discursive frameworks of the government or the institution.
If I wonder what kind of country the UK has become – the answer to that is increasingly unpleasant – I also wonder what kind of place the university has become. It mustn’t just blow in the wind of government policy or hide from political discourses we find uncomfortable or plain horrifying. Even when I teach science fiction - as we did this week with The War of the Worlds - we talk about these issues. So I’m starting to speak out and up.