On politics, pain and playfulness

At the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham last week, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, announced that the UK government will underwrite funding for successful applicants who are in the process of bidding for EU-funded projects: if applicants for EU funding secure multi-year funding before Brexit, the Treasury, he said, “will guarantee those payments after Britain has left the EU”.

The conference also saw the announcement by the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, of plans for major new restrictions on overseas students, including two-tier visa rules affecting supposedly lower-quality universities and courses. And at the same conference the Prime Minister, Theresa May, announced that Article 50 would be triggered before the end of March 2017, signalling that, in all likelihood, the UK will leave the EU in the spring of 2019; and as part of her pledge to transform Britain in the light of the referendum result, the Prime Minister noted: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.”

The Chancellor of the Exchequer’s statement notwithstanding, much of what we’re currently hearing from government about Britain’s place in the world – and the place of the world in Britain – is, in my opinion, anathema to what those of us who work in universities believe in and represent. I’m proud to be Dean of a Faculty at the core of an international university at the heart of a city that looks outwards, and our determination to attract, retain and support talented students and staff from across Europe and around the world is undiminished.

I’m pleased to note, then, that the Commons Education Select Committee – chaired by the Conservative MP Neil Carmichael, who at the referendum campaigned for the UK to remain in the EU – has launched an inquiry into the potential impact of leaving the EU on UK Higher Education; the inquiry is accepting written submissions here until Friday 11 November 2016.

But we have to be frank, I think, about the emotional, psychological and physiological effects this time of change and uncertainty is having on so many of us. People’s feelings about the current situation will inevitably vary, but I’m increasingly aware of students and colleagues feeling shock, fear, anger and even depression. We have to allow for those feelings – they are, after all, natural – and we also have to support each other in our different stages of the process of coming to terms with what is going on.

Talking is important. My advice to those who, in the light of the referendum result, are considering their position in the UK is not to make a decision too quickly. We make good decisions, using both our mind and our emotions, when we are not alarmed or anxious. So talk to someone to help you think a decision through is vital.

It’s also important, I think, that we remember – indeed, that we celebrate – the things that we do really well. Trying to imagine a myriad of different futures is very difficult and exhausting. Instead, we need to try to minimise the wear and tear on our minds and bodies by working with the here and now as much as we can: we can and do manage what is around us very well indeed. We need to ground ourselves in our expertise, in our life-transforming education, in our inspiring research – and, for those of us at King’s, in our community here in the Faculty.

So it’s peculiarly apposite that today sees the start of our annual Arts & Humanities Festival, which this year is on the theme of play. Let’s celebrate together – playfully and irreverently – what it means to be students and scholars of the Humanities, what it means (in the words of Terence) to be indifferent to nothing that is human, what it means (in the words of Socrates) to be citizens of the world.


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