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Whatever Brexit means, we have a job to do

Published: 21/09/2016

There may not be clarity on what Brexit will mean in reality, but there are opportunities to further and protect equality in higher education, explains David Ruebain.

DavidR websiteAlmost three months into uncharted territory since the EU referendum and I think it’s fair to say that we’re all still quite unclear as to what exactly Brexit means.

Beyond the Prime Minister’s homily of ‘Brexit means Brexit’, we don’t know of the extent of access to markets, labour or research let alone the consequential implications for practice, including employment and equality.

The decision of the Prime Minister to appoint three ‘Brexiteers’ to lead government departments that will collectively be responsible for determining all of this (Boris Johnson at Foreign and commonwealth affairs, David Davis at Exiting the European Union and Liam Fox at International trade) may be seen as politically astute but it’s anyone’s guess whether this will help or hinder outcomes that support the mission of universities and colleges.

I attended the Universities UK annual conference at the beginning of the month. As you would imagine, Brexit was the main topic of conversation. Speaking at the event to the assembled throng of vice-chancellors and sector agencies, universities and science minister Jo Johnson agreed that there is a ‘burning need’ to clarify the impact leaving the EU will have on everything from 2017 EU student enrolments to research funding. However, the minister was not in a position to offer that clarity.

Of course, it is not just the higher education sector where there is uncertainty. There is a corresponding lack of clarity on what exit will mean for many aspects of life, politics and society – not least for the future of our equality laws. Some think that a complete revision of our equality law is now on the cards, but for the reasons that I set out in my previous blog I think this unlikely.

In fact, I would say that despite the uncertainties following the 23 June vote, there is perhaps an unexpected opportunity  for equality, both in higher education and more widely. The ministerial responsibility for universities and colleges has returned to the Department for Education, headed by Justine Greening. Interestingly, equalities now also comes under Greening’s remit. ECU will be working to highlight to the government the links between these two areas, to show how many individual higher education institutions and the sector as a whole can lead the way on equality.

It is also interesting that in her very first days in post, the new prime minster delivered a speech in which she prioritised race equality. Since then Teresa May has announced a public sector-wide audit of race equality, and Labour has also committed to their own race equality consultation. Baroness McGregor-Smith is currently investigating the issues faced by business in developing Black and minority ethnic talent and skills. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has highlighted the urgent need for a comprehensive, long-term race equality strategy if we are to go about ‘healing a divided Britain’.

So, notwithstanding the distractions of Brexit, for those of us committed to the agenda of equality, diversity and inclusion, the focus, now more than ever, should be on tackling chronic, long-term issues of underrepresentation and disadvantage. This can include through finessed, non-legislative change. For example, many universities have initiatives that build on good practice elsewhere – the recent example of Essex University’s decision to equalise pay is notable. And the lessons of ECU’s Athena SWAN Charter, and our burgeoning Race Equality Charter show that higher education is already thinking strategically on equality.

Whatever Brexit may mean, we have a job to do.