DESPITE the rise of inward-looking nationalism, the election of Donald Trump on an ‘America First’ ticket and the possibility of a hard ‘Brexit’ from the European Union for the United Kingdom, the world’s universities remain committed to the cause of globalisation.

‘America First’ President Donald Trump

But are some of their actions adding to the discord between the internationally-mobile elite and the majority of voters – at least in the USA and UK?

For while universities are nearly all signed up to ‘internationalisation’ and most are in favour of student & staff mobility along with joint partnerships to further their research and offshore activities, are they forgetting something?

That was the intriguing question posed by one of the keynote speakers at the annual conference of the European Association for International Education, or EAIE. in Seville, Spain this year.


Alexander Betts, director of the Oxford University’s refugee studies research centre, gave one heck of a thought-provoking address to the 6,000 assembled delegates who had travelled from all over to be in Seville for the annual get-together of international higher education stakeholders.

See his address here on youtube.

After a whirlwind look at the negative impact the Brexit vote was already having in the UK, with EU student applications to British universities falling by 7% and many EU higher education staff seriously considering moving abroad before the UK leaves the Union, Betts asked whether the liberal intelligentsia leading the world of international higher education had not forgotten those who feel alienated by increasing globalisation in their own countries.

Only four days in ‘Vote Leave’ areas

Showing a map contrasting London, the big city locations and Scotland which voted heavily to remain in the EU referendum with the top 50 areas which voted strongly to leave, Betts admitted that he, as a member of the liberal intelligentsia, had spent just four days of his entire life in the strong ‘Vote Leave’ areas.

His message was blunt: in all the rush to be ever so international had Britain’s universities forgotten to include the majority of people living in deprived communities and failed to consider their interests?

I’ve felt the same when travelling down to London from the North East of England to report on international higher education gatherings in London as a freelance correspondent for University World News.

The North East, where I have lived for almost my entire adult life, voted heavily to leave the European Union.

European Commission seen as part of the elite

When I knocked on local doors to try to drum up support for the Remain campaign it wasn’t just immigration that was thrown in my face as a reason to leave the EU. Many, Labour-supporters in particular, saw the European Commission as part of a far-away elite which wasn’t interested in the plight of the steel industry on Teesside or the lack of public transport and infrastructure in the North.

Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission President

It didn’t help, of course, that the then Prime Minister David Cameron had spent years belittling the European project and tried to prevent the elevation of Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the Commission.

But when I suggested the Leavers would win the referendum at these international gatherings, I was laughed at by both the London-centric higher education policy wonks and representatives from abroad.

‘They just didn’t get it’, was my thought.

Swiss tried to raise the alarm 

Only the Swiss, who had seen the pro-European project blow-up in their face in one of their referendums, tried to raise alarm at the seemingly complacent drift of the British university establishment, which gave the impression that a few letters to The Times and a few meetings where they talked to themselves about the danger of losing lots of European research money would do the trick.

So, now we are where we are; and perhaps it is refreshing that the professor from Oxford University can stand up before 6,000 participants in an international higher education conference and remind the universities of Europe – and the rest of the world – not to forget their grassroots in the pursuit of international status.

* ONE sign that the higher education establishments, at least in Europe, are waking up to the need to include all social classes in their drive to get 20% of European students spending time studying or working abroad during their degrees is the new initiative by Universities UK International to widen participation in outward student mobility. See my report ‘Shorter periods abroad could widen student mobility’ for University World News and my piece on this website about why I blog about student mobility.

Main photo: Impassioned call from Alexander Betts