As expected the impact of the UK leaving the European Union dominated this year’s International Higher Education Forum (#IHEF19), but I was surprised by the frank admission of Exeter university vice-chancellor Sir Steve Smith that he didn’t know a single person who had voted to Leave.”


The former president of Universities UK quickly corrected himself to add: “Well, I didn’t know anyone who told me they had voted ‘Leave’… and that’s the point!”

Exeter University’s Vice-Chancellor Sir Steve Smith

Could there really be an open debate about Brexit in university circles? he enquired of his audience of higher education leaders and influencers.

Imagine the reaction!

Imagine the reaction if someone in a university meeting piped up to say: ‘Well, I think Brexit is a jolly good idea!’

I’ve often thought the same when travelling down from the North East of England, which voted overwhelmingly in favour of leaving the EU in the referendum, to report on gatherings of the elite in higher education usually held in London.

Sir Steve suggested it was easy to be in a room where ‘evidence, truth and rational debate’ were the order of the day and everyone shared the same view – “but those debates don’t speak to the lives of many people”.

And that helps to explain why those in higher education can sometimes be written-off in derogatory terms as ‘experts who live in the London and South East bubble’ – and why the pro-Brexit lobby was able to capitalise on an ‘anti-elitist, anti-EU’ message during the EU referendum and gain overwhelming support for leaving the European Union in towns like Sunderland and Middlesbrough.

Cautious approach

It also helps to understand the cautious approach of Labour’s ‘man of the people’ leader, Jeremy Corbyn, as he attempts to balance the referendum outcome with a softer Brexit that protects the jobs of people in the normally Labour-voting Northern towns, which heavily backed the call to head for the EU exit, and the largely metropolitan Labour membership who voted to Remain in the EU.

And, as for Sir Steve Smith, he really should get out and meet more people outside the Higher Education establishment. But he knows that already!

See the links below for my reports for University World News from this years’ International Higher Education Forum (#IHEF19) organised by Universities UK International at Imperial College London:

Brexit UK will need to act more globally – Minister

UK may need a Swiss-style replacement for Erasmus+

‘Strengthen Commonwealth links’ to stay international

International students: ‘Brexit makes UK less attractive’