Hopes, beliefs, and concerns: narratives in German and Portuguese universities regarding Brexit

Europe of Knowledge |

Tim Seidenschnur

By studying higher education as an institutional field, we focus on an area where European integration has in general been regarded as positive. However, the current period is characterized by basic disagreements among the political parties and the electorates about the preferred nature of the future European order, which causes uncertainties and tensions. Furthermore, the European Union is not only a political field, but it has also provided a framework for both, cooperation and competition between universities and discourses on cooperation or competition provide different ways for people in universities for how they perceive political events.


Focusing on Brexit, we refer to a process that gained momentum in 2016 when a majority of 51.9 per cent of UK citizens was in favor to sever the political and legal connection between the UK and the European Union in a referendum. This was the beginning of a process of negotiation, which still remains ongoing and induces a lot of uncertainties to university actors. In December 2016, the Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE) prepared an application to support research on the consequences and responses to Brexit and following their call researchers from 10 higher education research institutions started to collect data and discuss the perspectives on Brexit at universities in their countries.


In our recent paper (Seidenschnur et al 2019), we analyze narratives, which our interview partners tell frequently talking and thinking about the role of Brexit for German and Portuguese universities. The narratives document how sensemaking of Brexit occurs and how people ascribe meaning to what Brexit means to Europe and its universities. We further analyze how the discourses of cooperation and competition become central in these narratives and the sensemaking within the narratives.


Concerns, beliefs & hopes

The analysis of the paper reconstructs three narratives, which are present in the data. The first narrative is a narrative on concerns. The interview partners are concerned about ongoing cooperation with UK partners regarding student and staff mobility. Within this narrative of concerns, a discourse of competition becomes visible. For instance when the interview partners express concerns regarding the attractiveness of Europe as an academic lighthouse compared to other regions in the world. Further concerns are expressed when interview partners talk about remaining competitive for national students and staff by offering attractive opportunities for exchange. Hence, the discourse of competition is dominant in this narrative of concerns. However, beside this competitive lens, concerns are sometimes related to the worth of cooperation as such. At the same time, the narrative is not related to the field of research, where the interview partners are more optimistic regarding ongoing cooperation after a potential Brexit.


The second narrative is the narrative on beliefs. This narrative is related to perceptions of how cooperation in research will continue or not. In both countries, Portugal and Germany, there are stories of confidence reflecting the belief in ongoing research cooperation and strong ties between researchers. The narrative includes reports on personal relationships between scientists and shared interests and expertise that bring people together no matter if and how Brexit manifests. At times, this narrative even comprehends traits of resistance to political decisions. In such cases, academics do not only belief that cooperation in research remains stable but they express also their will to intensify their investments in cooperation with UK researchers in resistance to political developments. Hence, cooperation discourses are strong in the narrative on beliefs and lead into expression of confidence and strong trust in existing ties.


The third narrative is the narrative on hopes. This narrative is more about expectations and hopes towards political actors and thereby frames Brexit ultimately as a political issue. Since academics are not willing to do major changes in their professional core activities with or without Brexit, they express expectations to negotiate a new framework that allows ongoing cooperation with UK researchers and organizations. The ideas how such treaties should look like differ in the interviews. However, the need to negotiate such treaties is justified by both discourses: the cooperation discourse, highlighting the worth and benefit of cooperation with many regards, and the competition discourse, highlighting that these treaties are necessary to keep Europe and UK competitive in an internationalized field.


Losses and gains

Finally, our paper analyzes managerial consequences embedded in the interviews. The interview partners display, at least implicitly, a pragmatic attitude in their managerial approach to deal with the consequences of Brexit. This pragmatism aims at preventing greater losses and guarantee future gains. In both countries, this implies for instance thinking about alternative partners for student exchange. In Germany, even though the interview partners highlight redundantly their wish and will to continue cooperation with their UK partners and that they are highly unfortunate about Brexit, the pragmatism in thinking about managerial consequences also reflects quiet opportunism. Quiet opportunism is marked by the interviewees as a communication they only tell reluctantly. It does not change that German interview partners express their wish to keep UK as a EU member.


However, since they may have to deal with Brexit, they refer to the high success of UK universities in gaining EU research funding, displaying UK as a net winner who takes more out of the common pool than it provides. Hence, the interview partners expect some advantages for German project proposals in a post-Brexit future, which ends up in a more relaxed attitude towards different future scenarios for universities. Again, this somehow contradictory coexistence of highlighting to be unfortunate about Brexit and expressing opportunism regarding potential gains in backstage communication mirrors the parallel existence of discourses of cooperation and competition.


Dr. Tim Seidenschnur is coordinator of the thematic area “Governance and Organization” at the International Centre for Higher Education Research (INCHER-Kassel) at University of Kassel (Germany). 



Tim Seidenschnur, Amélia Veiga, Jens Jungblut, António Magalhães (2019). Hopes, beliefs, and concerns: narratives in German and Portuguese universities regarding Brexit, Higher Education, online first. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-019-00443-y