Can higher education help the UK to move on from ‘Put Britain First’ type cheap imitations of Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great’ campaign slogan and all that surrounded Brexit and demonstrate that international cooperation rather than narrow nationalism is the best way to tackle the world’s problems ranging from climate change to pandemic diseases?

The ‘Get Brexit Done and never mind the consequences’ messaging which propelled Boris Johnson into Number Ten Downing Street with a vast majority in the general election in December 2019 seems like a lifetime ago.

Back then, an apparently fun-loving mop-haired popularist politician was able to reach previously inaccessible parts of the British electorate with a cheap nationalist appeal designed by his campaign genius, the modern-day Rasputin of UK politics, Dominic Cummings, who did such a brilliant or evil (depending on your view) job of winning the referendum to leave the European Union in 2016.

Boris Johnson disappointed universities with his U-turn on keeping the UK in the EU’s Erasmus student mobility scheme

Touching raw nerves

Like Trump in the USA and Viktor Orbán in Hungary and other such leaders around the world, they touched raw nerves among the less well-off in the more neglected parts of their country and became the beneficials of an anti-establishment mood among voters.

This was quite a feat, as like Trump, an arch capitalist in America, Boris Johnson and his backers were mostly hard-core Conservatives who lived the high-life thanks to their establishment connections.

But, by portraying their opponents as the ‘enemy from within’ as Johnson and Cummings did so successfully with Labour’s left-wing, but slightly naive, leader Jeremy Corbyn, and linking this to frustration over the stalemate in parliament about completing the Brexit saga, the Tories won a string of previously rock-solid Labour seats across the North-east of England and Midlands.

Of course, this was before the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the world and showed that no country is an island in geopolitical or health matters and that the only way to defeat something as big as the coronavirus is for the world to pool its scientific brains and resources to find vaccines capable of being produced in large enough quantities to slow, and hopefully eventually stop the spread of the killer disease.

Can internationalism beat narrow nationalism?

But getting back to the question that I asked at the start of this blog: Can international higher education and the research help countries like the UK and US understand that narrow nationalism isn’t the answer to the world’s great challenges of sustainable development and the devastating impact of climate change. mega pollution and emerging pandemics?

Delegates at a previous British Council Going Global conference

Well, some hopeful signs emerged at the British Council’s Going Global 2021 conference in June, when the UK universities minister Michelle Donelan tried her best to change the stuck record of isolationism that was trumpeted by former Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May and used so effectively by Johnson and company to ‘get Brexit done’ and ignore the rough edges in their messy withdrawal deal with the European Commission.

Donelan certainly changed the mood music as she opened the British Council international bash, with the message: “We simply cannot solve the world’s current problems with past solutions, and we need to work globally if we are to make real progress.”

After praising the vital role of International education and research partnerships throughout the COVID-19 crisis, particularly scientific expertise in helping global understanding of the coronavirus disease, Donelan said: “Now is the time to build on existing foundations and interconnectedness”.

Of course, she had to indulge in a bit of flag waving about the UK’s leading role in the rapid COVID-19 vaccine development, but overall what she said was pretty measured, with the minister saying: “We remain committed to our aspirations to be an internationally-minded, truly Global Britain”, with education having “a pivotal role in developing this ambition.”

Developing global citizens

The speech was welcomed by many delegates at the virtual British Council gathering, with Phil Baty, the chief knowledge officers at Times Higher Education tweeting: “Universities minister @michelledonelan talks pointedly of the importance of “developing global citizens” at #GoingGlobal2021 – a welcome departure from May’s “citizens of nowhere” nastiness.”

Professor Dame Janet Beer, vice-chancellor at the University of Liverpool and a champion of UK International higher education, said she was “happy that the global citizen is back”.

To avoid delegates getting carried away with the euphoria over Donelan’s internationalist tone, the leading American economist and expert on sustainable development, Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs, told the Going Global gathering that he was disappointed by all the talk of China being the enemy at the recent G7 meeting of world leaders in Cornwall.

Professor Sachs is president of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Solutions Network and he criticised the current Joe Biden administration in the White House as well as Trump’s anti-China rhetoric, saying it was “disgraceful” for the US government to threaten academics and universities for working closely with Chinese colleagues on big issues such as climate change.

Watch Jeffrey Sachs address here

Universities speak a common language

He contrasted universities and their efforts since Plato’s times to speak a common language and relate to each other with governments who “are not such great collaborators” and want to know who the enemy is.

“Academics don’t talk that way. They don’t think that way. China is not the enemy in my view. I’m more worried about my own government frankly,” Professor Sachs told the conference.

Also adding to the more optimistic internationalist tone at the British Council event was diplomat turned academic Tom Fletcher, a former British Ambassador to Lebanon and now principal of Hertford College at Oxford University.

He said: “Great diplomacy is always on the side of coexistence and against those who feel the answer to the 21st century is to build a bigger all.”

He pointed delegates to recent work on global competence by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and said what the world needs now is more of “the sort of empathy that is lacking in many of today’s generation of political leaders” – with skills such as critical thinking and emotional intelligence becoming much more important than before the pandemic.

  • If you want to read more about the discussions at the British Council’s 2021 Going Global conference, see my three reports for University World News.

Jeffrey Sachs condemns crackdown on China cooperation

Creating global citizens ‘is back’ for higher education

Knowledge diplomacy is key to surviving geopolitics

Also watch Prof Sachs’ speech at Going Global 2021

Main Image:Studying in the UK

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