Tuesday 14 February 2017

How the remaining EU states could use higher education policy to turn Brexit to their advantage

When it comes to discussing what the inevitable consequences of a huge decision like Brexit might turn out to be, debate in the UK has tended to fall into two main camps.

Probably the most heavily populated camp is the pessimistic scenario that Brexit will turn out to be a costly and damaging move for both the UK and the European Union.

Another conception, one that has been widely promoted by the right-wing press, is that Brexit is going to be great for Britain, that the EU will get a jolly good beating if they don't give Theresa May what she demands, and that anyone who tries to question what is actually going on is engaging in some kind of atrocious anti-democratic treason against "the will of the people".

An awful lot of British people are particularly preoccupied with the outcomes for Britain and unlikely to spend a comparable amount of time thinking about the potential outcomes for Europe, so it's obvious that the small scale of positive coverage about prospects for the EU has been completely dwarfed by the scale of (in my view incredibly unrealistic) hyper-optimistic coverage about the UK's prospects.

Of the UK media articles on post-Brexit prospects for Europe that I've come across, a significant majority have been pessimistic. Optimistic views about the future development of the EU are pretty hard to come by in the UK media, but they're actually quite easy to envisage.

I'm never going to say that everything in the EU is going to be great, as if politics is some kind of childish fairy story with heroes, villains, dragons to be slain or happy endings, but it's easy to envisage some potential benefits. The EU has far too many structural defects for things to turn out all hunky dory for everyone, but to say that there would be no benefits whatever for our 27 former European allies would be to make the opposite kind of massively over-simplistic prophesy as claiming that everything will turn out ideally for the UK.

Aide from not having a bunch of lazy obnoxious 'Kippers stinking out business in the European Parliament with their obstinate voting patterns (when they can be bothered to vote at all), their relentless expenses scamming and their toxic grandstanding, one of the most obvious potential advantages for the EU could arise in higher education and the development of high skill economies.

Given the circumstances in the English higher education system (the highest tuition fees in the world for study at public universities) it's pretty extraordinary that there isn't already a huge brain drain to the continent where university tuition costs generally range between absolutely free to a few hundred, or maybe a couple of thousand euros per year.

Given the huge disparity in tuition costs between English universities and the continent, Brexit could give European nations a huge advantage in long-term development potential if they play their cards right.

Now that the Tories have scrapped the maintenance grant there is yet another debt disincentive to aspiring university graduates from low income backgrounds, but if the EU nations decide to continue to offer free or significantly cheaper professional qualifications to English students, the hopes of bright aspiring kids from poorer backgrounds could lie on the continent.

It's indisputable that people from ordinary backgrounds are heavily discriminated against in modern Britain. Look at parliament; look at the executive boardrooms of major corporations; look at the judiciary; look at the mainstream media - There is a huge under-representation of people from poor and ordinary backgrounds and a huge over-representation of the 7% who went to fee paying private schools.

A recent study found that workers from lower income class backgrounds are paid an average of £7,000 per year less than people doing exactly the same job who happen to come from privileged backgrounds.

The hopes and dreams of the English working classes could end up with a highly beneficial lifeline if the European Union adopts a talent-spotting higher education policy.

The neglected English lower income classes would get a higher education lifeline, and the adoptive EU member states would get a steady supply of confident and adventurous young people who are motivated to learn.

The benefit of this for the EU is so obvious it barely seems worth stating. If a certain percentage of these English migrant-graduates decide to stay in their country of study in would be a huge advantage in the building a high-skill workforce. Even if the graduate uses their degree as a passport to work in any of the other 27 EU states it would still be of significant benefit to the wider EU.

And why wouldn't these students stay in a country where their working class background and accent doesn't cost them a £7,000 reduction in their salary due to the extraordinary biases of the British class system, but their fluency in English actually offers them an actual career advantage due to the fact that English is the global language and the majority of the world don't give a damn about the particularities of the British accent it's spoken with?

This all depends on whether the EU adopt a progressive strategy of enticing UK students with low fees, and whether the Tories opt for "nuclear Brexit" where they storm away from the debating table with no agreements in place whatever.

Even under "nuclear Brexit" circumstances it would be difficult to see how the Tories could try to prevent bright kids from poorer backgrounds heading for the continent should the EU adopt a deliberate policy of attracting neglected UK talent by providing university education at the same low costs that are afforded to remaining EU citizens.

The number higher education courses taught in English within the 27 remaining EU states is rapidly increasing year on year. It would seem like a counter-productive move for EU states to impose huge fees on English students, but it's obviously entirely possible if the Tories end up turning the Brexit "negotiations" into some kind of bitter ideological battle full of bitter recriminations and self-destructive tit-for-tat retaliations.

Whether the EU adopts a strategy of offering a lifeline to neglected lower income English kids or not is a question that can only be answered by time, and it's obviously far from the only advantage that the EU could continue to seek from Brexit. An exodus of major corporations keen on retaining access to the Single Market is probably the most oft cited potential benefit for the EU. Just consider the effects that kind of business exodus could have on the perceived advantages of having professional qualifications from universities in EU member states.

If there is a shift of high pay jobs to the single market zone, and the cost of university tuition in the EU continues to be significantly cheaper than in England, why wouldn't working class kids with aspirations of a better life take the lifeline out of a deeply divided class-system ridden Tory Brexit Britain and the prospect of a vast (likely unpayable) tuition fee debt, just in order to land a job in which they're paid thousands of pounds a year less than their privileged posh-talking counterparts?

My advice to any English teenager would be to at least consider the option of studying elsewhere in the EU. That right exists now for all of us until our EU citizenship is extinguished by the Tories. Whether it continues to exist depends on the EU's specific post-Brexit strategy. If they decide to use the high fees in England as an advantage to entice bright working class/lower income kids, it could be a huge advantage.

It's obviously not possible to give guarantees under the massively uncertain current circumstances, but it's definitely worth at least looking at what European universities have to offer before deciding to lumber yourself with vast tuition fee debts or to give up the dream of higher education and professional qualifications entirely (as plenty of Tories so obviously want you to).

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Note: I have been careful to differentiate between the English universities and the universities in the rest of the UK. Should Brexit lead to a second Scottish Independence referendum and the break-up of the United Kingdom the lack of massive tuition fees in Scotland could also be used as a long-term development advantage for the Scottish economy by attracting neglected English students from low income backgrounds.

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