Brexit and the Decline of British Intellectual Hegemony
Ulf Schmidt maintains that “Higher education in the UK is morally bankrupt. I’m taking my family and my research millions, and I’m off. After 25 years I feel Britain has broken my trust. I’m one of many academics who now see their future in Europe.”
I mourned the Brexit vote. Not only did my British passport bode to cease offering the free and easy travel among the glorious capitals of Europe but, more sadly by far, my affection for (and immense pride in) the greater European intellectual community, to which the country of my birth belonged through its membership in the E.U., suffered a blow.
I was awarded my generous Marie Curie Ph.D. Fellowship to attend UCL — which facilitated and paid for my research at museums, galleries, print collections, university libraries and special collections in Paris, Frankfurt, Karlsruhe, Vienna, Strassbourg, the famed Warburg Institute of Humanistic Studies and the Courtauld Art Institute in London — by the E.U.. One of the first conferences where I presented my research to an international community of scholars was the E.U.-funded Marie Curie conference at Manchester in 2006 (my paper: “From Pliny to Virgil: Menopause and diabolical perspectives in the art of Hans Baldung Grien,” Marie Curie Conference — MC 2: University of Manchester, April 11, 2006).
The researcher in the story below feels similarly, and is removing himself, his family, and his research millions from the land with which he had, and still sadly maintains, a long-term scholarly love affair due to its once great intellectual climate and formerly enviable universities:
“Why am I am going back to the country of my birth? England no longer feels like home. Instead, since the Brexit vote of 2016, I have felt like a “leaver” in a waiting hall. Now I am going, and the emotional cost will take a long time to come to terms with…We’ve decided to go because England seems characterised — not unlike the 1930s — by an impassioned anti-intellectualism that seeks simple answers and negates context and complexity. Now a wave of redundancies is snaking its way through the education sector. While the country is in the grip of a pandemic, and with no vaccine in sight, vice-chancellors have sleepless nights — one would hope — over how to keep their outdated business model afloat.
“The problem cannot be fixed unless politicians and university leaders recognise that the commodification and commercialisation of knowledge is fundamentally flawed. Knowledge needs to be free. Bildung macht frei — education sets you free — was the motto of 19th century German social democrats to forge a more egalitarian, classless society. People, they argued, should not be judged by their wealth or class, but by merit alone. A university sector such as the one we have now, dependent on those who can afford to pay, is doomed. It cannot attract the best.
“…Britain’s cherished higher education sector, once the envy of the world, is on the brink of collapse. The humanities were world leading — and still are in many areas. Scholars in English literature, creative writing, the arts, languages, history and philosophy were acclaimed across the globe. But now the sector as a whole is bankrupt, not just financially, but morally. It has lost its integrity and seems unwilling to engage in critical reflection about the causes of this unprecedented malaise…Likewise, research is taking a massive hit in post-Brexit, post-pandemic Britain. There is good evidence that the exodus of more than 10,000 scholars from Britain’s universities since the referendum continues unabated. Scotland has lost almost 2,500 academics. Countries such as Germany are beneficiaries of this mass migration of intellectual talent. Scholars and their families are voting with their feet. Britain is experiencing a significant “brain drain”. Life is too short to wait until the country has come to its senses is what most Europeans — and many British academics — think.
“Berlin, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Munich, Paris, Amsterdam, Vienna and all the other major European cities have not been idle. They know this is a historic opportunity to attract some of the best minds in the world. At least one other German professorship has recently been awarded to a senior academic from Britain. I know scholars from around the UK who admit that the only reason for them to apply for grants is to increase their chances of leaving this sceptred isle….” (Ulf Schmidt, ‘Higher education in the UK is morally bankrupt. I’m taking my family and my research millions, and I’m off,’ The Guardian, Sept. 8, 2020.)
The British intellectual empire post-Brexit, like its post-colonial economic one, is — finally, inexorably — going the way of the Dodo.