How can universities tackle the challenges and exploit the opportunities of Brexit?

Phil Syrpis, Professor of EU Law, University of Bristol Law School

Brexit will present the UK with a vast number of political, economic, social, and legal challenges and opportunities in the months and years ahead. In this short piece, Professor Phil Syrpis reflects on the steps taken within the University of Bristol to begin to tackle the challenges and exploit the opportunities.

From the time that it became clear, on the morning of Friday 24 June 2016, that the UK had voted to leave the EU, academics have been absorbing, reacting to, and in some cases seeking to shape, the political agenda. Events have been occurring at a dizzying pace. David Cameron was swiftly replaced by Theresa May; Parliament, after Gina Miller’s Supreme Court victory, voted to trigger Article 50 and begin the process of exiting the EU; White Papers and Negotiating Guidelines were issued; and we are now set for a General Election on 8 June, which looks set to be dominated by Brexit (that’s one of the very few predictions I feel able to make).

Meanwhile, we have President Trump in the US, and elections in France and Germany which will play a big part in shaping the future of the EU. Within less than two years (unless that period is extended by unanimous agreement) the EU and the UK will have to agree a ‘divorce bill’, conclude and ratify a withdrawal agreement, and work towards an agreement on the framework for the future relationship between the EU and the UK. We – and I include academics, policy makers, journalists, and citizens – all need to learn more about trade law, including under ‘WTO rules’, immigration systems, the nature of the devolution settlement in the UK, and much more besides.

One of the key tasks for universities is to engage with, and interrogate, the policy-making process. Those of us with a research interest in European affairs have been in the unaccustomed position (and yes, I know it won’t last…) of being very much in demand; organising and speaking at many events. Our research is produced to short deadlines. Law School staff have, for example, presented evidence to Select Committees, and have reacted to the arguments and judgments made in the Miller ruling, in blogs and in the media. We have crafted research proposals, made new links with policy-makers, and immersed ourselves in the new world of blogs, vlogs, podcasts, Twitter and Facebook. Support networks, at School, Faculty and University level exist, and are developing apace. We are very grateful for the support from the University of Bristol, in particular from RED, PolicyBristol, and the communications teams.

More broadly, the higher education community must show that it is able to engage, in a more systematic and meaningful way than hitherto, with the city and its population. Brexit has revealed that we live in a deeply divided kingdom, in which polarised views are passionately held, and rarely challenged. Different communities in the UK, and within Bristol, live very different lives, seeming to share ever fewer things in common.

How Bristol voted in the EU referendum, ward by ward, with a high Remain vote in red and a low Remain vote in yellow. The original interactive map can be found on who kindly gave us permission to use this image. – Register here for #BristolBrexit

Universities have the potential to make a profound and important contribution here; bringing communities together, enabling them to share concerns and to articulate the goals we can all work towards. I have attended innovative workshops in the last month which will feed into a free public event at @Bristol on 23 May, #BristolBrexit – a city responds to Brexit, in which national and local politicians, the Mayor’s Office, trade unionists, citizens’ advice bureaux, community groups, pressure groups, employers, recruiters, business organisations, and academics from different disciplines from the region’s universities, were discussing the full range of concerns created by Brexit.

I sense that there is both a need, and an appetite, for such conversations to continue, to ensure that the current crisis serves a purpose and yields long-term rewards. Of course, maintaining the momentum will not be easy. Government policy looks set to restrict what we are able to do. It is important to manage expectations, and to focus on achievable goals.

A university’s response to Brexit has to be multifaceted. Ensuring that there is proper coordination between the different parts of the institution represents a significant administrative challenge. We must aspire to be ambitious. Our goals should be:

  • To provide advice to students and staff who may be affected by changes in the law, and worried about the impact of such changes;
  • To make advice available to the general public who are similarly affected;
  • To engage in a more meaningful way with business and civil society groups, and citizens at large, in relation to the co-production of research and the dissemination of research outputs;
  • To ensure that researchers in different parts of the university are afforded opportunities for collaboration with academic partners and citizens within and beyond the university;
  • To develop our curriculum so that it reflects recent developments (in Law for example, there is much to be done to capture the changing international dimension of UK public law);
  • To improve our web presence (see for example this developed within the Law School) so as to showcase our activities and expertise, enabling us to raise our profile with students, alumni, applicants, potential research collaborators, policy makers, and beyond.

PM visit to Germany July 2016 (l-r) Prime Minister Theresa May, Chancellor Angela Merkel. Tom Evans/Crown Copyright (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The stakes are very high. The politics of the next few months and years are likely to shape life in the UK for generations. Universities are as well placed as many to influence policy; although there is little sign that the Government is listening, and indeed every prospect that Theresa May will not be explaining what Brexit means to her, even in the Conservative manifesto, for fear of creating hostages to fortune in the tough negotiations which lie ahead.

Universities are also well placed to contribute towards a richer public understanding of what lies ahead. We must be ready to seize the opportunities, and to play our part in bringing communities together.

#BristolBrexit – a city responds to Brexit will showcase the progress of a series of workshops on migration, trade, and local communities, and offer new opportunities for collaboration across other themes related to Brexit in Bristol.  The event will feature stalls, workshops, interactive networking opportunities and an art exhibition. Sign up on Eventbrite to attend or be involved on the day. Contact for more information.

This blog was first published on the GW4 Opinion.
The views expressed here are personal and do not reflect the views of the funders of our research.