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Opinions Special – Geography after Brexit

  • Written by  Dariusz Wójcik
  • Published in Opinions
Opinions Special – Geography after Brexit Imagedb/Shutterstock
04 Jul
What does a life outside the European Union mean for the academic discipline of geography in the UK?

On Friday 24 June we woke up in a different country. How different? We do not know yet, but the prevailing feelings seem to be division, lack of leadership and profound uncertainty about the future. In this article I would like to reflect on how the result of the EU referendum might affect geography as an academic discipline. Emotions, understandably, run high, so I think it is helpful to be transparent about one’s perspective. I am a Polish and British citizen, living in the UK since 1998 and privileged to have just won a five-year European Research Council consolidator grant.

One has to start by highlighting how quintessentially geographical Brexit is. It throws into painfully sharp relief the questions of place, territory, sovereignty, identity, diversity, globalisation, and inequality. Having drawn tens of thousands of miles of borders around the world (including parts of the eastern border of Poland), the UK is re-drawing its own borders with the rest of Europe, and probably within the UK as well. Last time we witnessed such a momentous geographical event was the fall of the Berlin Wall, after which many British and other Western geographers ventured into Eastern Europe. Now the tables have turned, and the UK may become the centre of attention as an object of geographical enquiry. In principle, Brexit is an intellectual opportunity for geography as a discipline well-suited to charting an uncharted territory.

360b Shutterstock.com shutterstock 161787275Is Brexit the most momentous geographical event to affect Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall? (Image: 360b/Shutterstock)

In practice, however, the post-referendum outlook for geography is much more challenging. Resources, both financial and human, are likely to be diminished. In the conditions of declining funding from the UK government, research councils and charities since 2008, EU funding has played an increasing role in British research, particularly in social sciences. According to REF2014 figures, in geography and environmental studies the share of EU in research funding has risen from 13 per cent in 2008/09 to 26 per cent in 2013/14. British universities have fared spectacularly well in winning EU grants, including approximately 30 per cent of ERC grants for research excellence in social sciences, and the largest number of grants from the Horizon2020 programme.

Beyond being a net financial beneficiary of the European Research Area, the UK has also been its leader, with UK-based scientists (including geographers) playing many key roles in steering committees, evaluation panels, and advisory boards. Without EU membership, the UK will lose a direct role in shaping the content and direction of the EU research programmes. Continued full access to funding is unlikely to be possible without the commitment of post-Brexit UK to respect free movement of people. With the economy facing recession and possibly more austerity, it is hard to see how the UK government will shore up deficits created by Brexit.

Over 200,000 British students have taken part in the Erasmus exchange programme allowing them to study and receive training in other EU countries

Some may say that British geography has for a long time been more orientated towards the USA rather than the EU, and that the annual meeting of the American Association of Geographers is the best place to meet a British geographer. There is some truth in that, but I would argue that engagement with geographers in other EU countries has been growing, and not at the expense of non-EU relationships. Quite the contrary, UK universities have attracted talent from all over the world as a gateway to the EU, and a platform for European and global research networks. This advantage builds on language, culture, and tradition of research excellence that predates the EU, but nevertheless may be difficult to maintain after Brexit. This is not physics, which often depends on pooled resources to conduct costly mega-projects. Nevertheless, the comparative and interdisciplinary nature of geography means that it thrives on international collaboration in an open world, and one in which political and economic crises do not send long-term environmental issues to the margins of attention and funding.

Thinking about geography after Brexit, we have to think about our students. We need to reassure EU students that they are welcome here, and maintain, as much as possible, opportunities for British students to study in the EU. Over 200,000 British students have taken part in the Erasmus exchange programme allowing them to study and receive training in other EU countries. An absolute majority of their generation voted to remain in the EU. What kind of geography do we teach to help them make sense of the world changing in ways they voted against? And how do we maintain and improve the quality of teaching in an environment of budget cuts?

twocoms shutterstock 386547100Theresa May – geography graduate (Image: Twocoms/Shutterstock)

Last but not least, we have to think about each other. As much as 15 per cent of UK academic staff are from other EU countries, and many more have partners and families from other EU countries. Whether they are from the UK, EU or beyond, many geographers have come here, stayed here, and made professional and personal decisions on the assumption that the UK is in the EU, that it has a cosmopolitan academic culture and an international outlook. There must now be many research projects and applications that are no longer viable. Lives will be disrupted and it is time to show solidarity and leadership to minimise the disruption. As it happens, a geography graduate from Oxford, Theresa May is running for the leadership of the Conservative Party to preside over Brexit. Perhaps she might prove my pessimism wrong? I would be delighted.

Polls indicate that the majority of leave voters are not only against immigration, but also against globalisation, multiculturalism, social liberalism, and include a majority of people in this country who are against the green movement, feminism and the internet. Keeping calm and carrying on does not work for me. Serving my country right or wrong, a principle invoked recently by George Osborne, does not work for me either. We are not soldiers. We are in the business of facts, evidence, and research, not blind and false patriotism. When anyone is wrong, particularly when a majority is wrong, we do our best to put them right. This is our responsibility as intellectuals. However much we have failed so far, this is the time to multiply our efforts.

Dariusz Wójcik is a Professor of Economic Geography at the School of Geography and the Environment, and St Peter’s College, Oxford University

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