How Brexit issues could impact U.S. higher education

Shocking the political leadership of the nation and world, voters in the United Kingdom approved a referendum to leave the European Union by a 52-48 margin. Most observers expected a close Brexit election, but the victory by “Leave” supporters stunned the political establishment and global financial markets. Prime Minister David Cameron has resigned and no one really knows what happens next. In the history of the European Union, no country has ever left creating uncertainty and chaos about the political, social, and economic future of the U.K. and Europe. Higher education leaders came out strongly in support of the United Kingdom remaining in the E.U. citing the value of the association for recruiting faculty and students as well as research grants from the funding agencies of the European Union. While it is unclear what specific aspects of Brexit may directly impact American colleges and universities, Brexit issues could impact U.S. higher education.

In the wake of the shocking results on the other side of the pond, American attention quickly turned to what the results may suggest regarding Donald Trump’s chances in the November presidential election. I see a number of parallels between Trump’s sudden rise and the supporters of Brexit. I’m not the first to suggest that Trump’s anti-immigration, nativist, and economic message mirrors the rise far-right parties in Europe.

While the issues have a different context in Europe (particularly immigration with the migrant crisis), the broad issues at work in Brexit are relevant to current U.S. politics.

Given the similarities, those of us in higher education would be smart to consider how the Brexit election suggests challenges that we will face—no matter who wins the White House.

As Vice President Biden said in regards the current global political climate, challenges are creating a climate for leaders “peddling xenophobia, nationalism, and isolationism.”

Specifically, four trends are stirring nationalist populism with significant implications for higher education: xenophobia, isolationism, intergenerational divide, and anti-intellectualism.


When economic inequality reins, it is easy to blame immigrants. It is too easy. Build a wall they say. Unfortunately, this is an area where American higher education has experience.

In the early 1900s, selective admissions practices were put into place to “protect” institutions from increasing access to minorities. As David Levine wrote in The American College and the Culture of Aspiration:

“In the 1920s and 1930s, American institutions of higher education engaged in egalitarian rhetoric, but their performance was a mockery of American ideals.

When an unprecedented opportunity for selection in admission suggested an intellectual renaissance, character was stressed, when the opportunity presented itself to select a heterogeneous and meritocratic elite, America’s best colleges chose to select the sons of native stock, even if they were less qualified.”

It is ironic that on the same day that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that higher education could consider race in admissions that the Leave campaign succeeded using immigration and xenophobia to persuade a majority to vote for Brexit.

We have seen higher education built on our worst fears and prejudices and we’ve seen higher education open doors of opportunity.

The strength of America and American higher education is how we interact with those who are different. Embracing difference is a hallmark of liberal education.

As higher education, we must continue our role in supporting and engaging our students with diversity. Fortunately, the Supreme Court gives us a tool to help improve diversity in our classrooms. Yet, there is much work to be done.

There is more at stake here than adding a few more underrepresented students to our campuses. Our country has too much segregation and racism. Higher education is one of the most effective ways to fulfill the American promise of opportunity.

We must more directly engage in this fight. We can’t argue for the power of diversity in court while emphasizing test scores that we know have racial biases. We can’t argue for the promise of higher education if we aren’t willing to actively make the promise available to all our people.


If we reviewed the strategic plans of U.S. colleges and universities, I would wager that most seek to increase international engagement and study abroad. Indeed, one of the great successes of the European Union was improving student mobility.

Despite this success, free movement across Europe was one of the hot button issues with Brexit.

Admittedly, the amount of public services in Europe has greater economic impact on the U.K. than in the United States. However, how do we reconcile the desires of higher education to reach across national border with those that seek to promote “America First?”

In higher education, we believe that today’s students will live and work in a global economy. Students will need to understand economic, political, and social differences that they will experience.

The support of remaining in the E.U. in London and in cities across the U.K. showed how some already understand this fundamental point. As the world become more interconnected, the ways that we think about and solve problems will inevitably change.

Higher education can’t retreat from its role in supporting cross-national collaboration. Voters negatively impacted by the post-industrial economy will reasonably react negatively to continued growth in the global economy. Higher education institutions can play a powerful role in supporting the social, economic, and political success of cities. In no way do I undervalue the impact of these trends on rural communities, every time I return to my hometown I drive past shuttered factories. Yet, the United States must continue to lead on the world stage for our political, economic, and security stability.

Higher education is very much on the frontline of American relations with the rest of the world. Isolationist rhetoric should not slow our emphasis on improving the global understanding of our students.

Intergenerational divide

One of the most striking aspects of the Brexit vote was the intergenerational divide in support for leaving the European Union. Voters over 65 supported leaving by 58% while those under 25 preferred remaining by 64%.

What do we make of this intergenerational divide?

In Hot, Flat, and Crowded, Tom Friedman called the baby boomers the Grasshopper Generation wasting the hard fought victories of the Greatest Generation:

“Alas, though, we, their children, the baby boomers, took that freedom and ran with it, presiding over an amazing age of technological and financial innovation but also incredible excess. We have turned out to be that “Grasshopper Generation”—we let loose the locust in us all and in the process ate through a staggering amount of our national wealth and our natural world in a very short period of time, leaving the next generation a massive economic and ecological deficit.”

The boomers that supported Brexit will leave their children with an economic and political stage that they largely never wanted to support.

In the U.S. context, public policy disproportionately supports programs for boomers over education, health care, and services for youth. Tax cuts over higher education funding may top this list of ways the boomers are robbing the wealth of youth. While their parents paid for their higher education, the boomers are putting the cost of higher education through student loans on the backs of their children. And then turning around to complain about why so many are still living at home!

Higher education leaders need to stand up to state legislatures and Congress to argue for a more equitable use of public monies.


“When Michael Gove said, ‘The British people are sick of experts,’ he was right. But can anybody tell me the last time a prevailing culture of anti-intellectualism has led to anything other than bigotry?”

This quote posted online from a political journalist from Florence summarizes the views of many supporters of remaining in the European Union as well as those worried about the growing national populism in the U.S. and U.K.

For several years now, higher education has found itself in an anti-intellectual environment. From attacks on the liberal arts and studying fields with “no practical value” to attacks on political science research, colleges and universities face many assaults on one of our course values: the power of knowledge.

When the question “who would you rather have a beer with?” can predict the outcome of presidential elections, are we surprised that a reality television star is a major party candidate?

There is a great line from the West Wing where Toby says to President Bartlett: “You’re not just folks, you’re not plain-spoken… Do not, do not, do not act like it!”

Politicians from a Harvard educated constitutional law professor to a Yale educated Texas governor trip over themselves to be more folksy.

We don’t trust the experts.

I understand why. For example…

Every person who has died on the operating table was having surgery performed by a well-educated surgeon. The surgeon went to school for years to learn about the human body and the best research on medicine. Have you ever met someone who had a loved one die in surgery performed by someone other than a surgeon?  Me either!  We can’t trust those surgeons. I’m sick of those expert surgeons killing patients. We have to put a stop to them.

This is ludicrous, but exactly what anti-intellectuals have been selling for years. And, of course, no one is better at selling this than Donald Trump.

Trump knows more than the generals, politicians, economists, and any other expert group you can think of… believe him.  He’ll be fantastic.

We all know experts aren’t perfect. Far from it! But do I want a trained pilot flying my next flight, a trained surgeon operating on me, and a teacher who understand pedagogy in my kid’s classroom—absolutely!

We have to stand up and encourage critical thinking

I have dedicated my life to an academic vocation. I believe in the power of higher education to improve our nation’s social, political, and economic future.

Unfortunately, once again after Brexit, those of us in academe are on the losing side.

We must do more to appeal to our better angels.

Xenophobia, isolationism, generational divides, and anti-intellectualism aren’t the future that I want or I want to leave for my children.

Higher education has a vital role to play in conquering the negative forces at work across the globe today.

We have to understand the causes and consequences of these trends.

We have to fight for reasonable and rational public policy that rejects fear-mongering and supports dialogue.

No longer can we embrace ignorance. Higher education needs to support and encourage critical thinking.

As Thomas Jefferson said, “I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.”

Higher education colleagues, we have our work cut out for us.

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