The 96 undergraduate and six graduate students from the University of Georgia arriving on June 26 in Oxford, England, for their study-abroad experience three days following the dramatic “Brexit” vote, came at a time of extreme political and economic bewilderment throughout the United Kingdom and Europe more generally.
While their predecessors may have looked forward to student life in one of Europe’s academic centers soaking up the many cultural and educational resources, the current batch’s attention is more likely to be on current affairs and the profound realignment of U.K.-European Union relations.
“We are all stunned,” was James McClung’s immediate reaction following the results of the referendum that cast the U.K. out of the EU by a narrow margin.
As director of the UGA at Oxford program, Dr. McClung knows well the city where more than 70 percent of the votes were cast in favor of the “Remain” in the EU campaign.
“I felt that the vote would play out in a fashion very similar to the Scotland referendum in 2014: It would poll closely but on the actual day there would be a 60/40 split in favor of remaining with the EU,” he responded in an email to questions from Global Atlanta.
“As you have seen the result is a very close swing the other way,” with the final vote of 51.9 percent in favor of leaving and 48.1 percent in favor of remaining. The close percentages, however, disguise that there was a margin of more than 1.2 million votes to leave.
The students will have a front row seat on the fallout from what can only be regarded as a historic moment.
Diane Purkiss, a fellow and tudor at Keble College, one of 38 colleges making up Oxford University, the oldest university in the English-speaking world, told a group with which Global Atlanta was traveling in late June, “We have been here before and that is not good news.”
An authority on the English Civil War, which pitted in the mid-17th century Parliamentarians known as “Roundheads” against Royalists (the “Cavaliers”) and led to violence throughout England, Scotland and Ireland with the eventual executive of King Charles 1.
Professor Purkiss was prompted to draw parallels with the Brexit vote, which in its immediate aftermath caused the value of the pound to plummet and stock markets to lose value.
“There was a failure in the redistribution of hope and a success in the redistribution of fear,” she said in response, severely criticizing the government of Prime Minister David Cameron for not combatting the perceptions that immigrants were responsible for a redistribution of resources away from the general population.
She also saw similarities in the role of the press. “The London press was to blame with the penny papers talking all the time about the spread of the plague by Catholics, a popular myth,” she said of the mid-17th century. “Today people were continually bombarded by right-wing views. Then it was the London press, today it’s the internet.”
Finally, she said that Mr. Cameron’s call for a referendum was stepping out of normal parliamentary procedures and a mistake similar to King Charles’ unwillingness to deal with the parliament of his time.
It was no surprise to Dr. McClung that Oxford, a city of less than 200,000 inhabitants, voted predominantly to remain in the EU given the city’s strength as a base for manufacturing, high-tech companies and scientific innovation, publishing, tourism and education. As housing prices have soared, Oxford has become a bedroom community for London, which has benefited as a financial center for the EU.
“I have talked with the students about this quite a bit,” he added. “Some are studying economics, others law and politics, still others history and literature. They all certainly seem to appreciate that they are witnessing something truly remarkable and historic with wide-reaching implications in a variety of disciplines.”
“Interestingly, of course, we’re all a bit anxious to see what may come of it as is most of the rest of Britain and the EU,” he added. “They are attentive, anxious in some sense, but mainly I think they are all quite curious about what this all may mean in the longer-term.”
Harlan G. Cohen, an associate professor at the UGA School of Law, underscored the issues that the students can study. “After the Brexit vote, the one thing that’s predictable is that we’re facing a long period of uncertainly,” he said in a news release issued shortly after the results were in. “Yesterday, everyone knew what the rules were. While the rules don’t change today, no one knows what the rules will be in three months or two years.”
Among specific issues to watch, he cited: the terms of trade in goods and services between the U.K. and the rest of the EU, the rights of U.K. citizens to work, to health care and to travel in other EU countries, intelligence sharing between the U.K. and other EU governments and the regulation of any number of industries in the U.K.
Dr. McClung said that the immediate impact of the Brexit vote would be to destabilize the British economy leading to a weaker pound that should provide the students with more purchasing power during their stay. In the longer term, however, he added that there may be a reduction in university services and increased costs as Britain absorbs increased premiums on all goods and services to make up for the losses experienced.
Andy Owsiak, who teaches in UGA’s department of international affairs, told Global Atlanta that he thinks the Brexit vote turned out the way it did because of widespread immigration concerns and a feeling that the U.K. had lost too much sovereignty to Brussels.
Among the benefits of belonging to the EU, he cited regional financial support, lower prices and freedom of movement. “The question to me is whether U.K. citizens thought these benefits were worth the sacrifice of sovereign control — particularly over immigration,” he said.
“Voting patterns suggest that older citizens that fondly remember the pre-EU days said “no,” seeking a return to the historical time of a more sovereign U.K..Younger citizens generally disagreed with that decision.”
Cas Mudde, who also teaches in UGA’s department of international affairs, pointed to the EU’s failures. “In their shared dislike of the European Union, populists have cherished the panic Britain’s U.K. referendum has struck at the heart of Europe. Its outcome is useful evidence that the EU is broken, its ‘the elite’ out of touch with ‘the people,’ who have now finally found their voice. Brexit has legitimized the anti-EU position, discounted as unacceptable and unrealistic for years.”
Dr. Mudde also wasn’t prepared to declare the referendum results sacrosanct. “Given the discussion in the first week after the Brexit vote I am no longer certain that this was indeed a conclusive vote,” he said. “Legally the referendum has little meaning as the U.K. has parliamentary primacy. Hence, the parliament will have to vote on the exit from the U.K., which might be problematic.”
As an avowed “Euroskeptic,” he said that while the EU has created more of an integrated market on the continent, it has “not achieved that much in creating a more equal and social Europe.”
He added that in terms of strengthening liberal democracy in Europe, “they are backsliding, as Hungary has built an illiberal democracy within the EU and several governments in East Central Europe have serious illiberal tendencies (e.g Poland, Romania and Slovakia).
In 1999 the University of Georgia Foundation acquired for the study-abroad program a Victorian house in Oxford that formerly had been a Japanese language school. In a calendar year approximately 250 undergraduates and 12 graduate students attend the Oxford program with some living in the UGA facility and others living at separate colleges.
The students take courses that are taught by regular UGA faculty members, but also participate in tutorials led by Oxford dons and participate in other activities of the university.
UGA’s former president, Michael Adams, expanded the Oxford program, which had originally been launched in 1989, as part of a larger initiative to increase the number of UGA students with overseas experiences.
To learn more about the program, click here.