Four years ago, I wrote a blog about “home”. About what home means, especially when your family home is in another country to your partner’s, but also what it means when your home country stops feeling like home to you.
Since then, things haven’t exactly improved. Any lingering hope that the utter stupidity that is the UK leaving the EU might not happen was firmly dashed once and for all last December, when the Conservatives somehow got their biggest majority in decades. And now, the time has finally come.
I’ve been trying to avoid the news, tired of the division and the arguments and people spitting in the faces of those who don’t agree with them. The UK has been my home for 31 years, but I don’t recognise the path it’s on at the moment. I still don’t understand what we’re supposed to be gaining by leaving, and anyone I’ve seen ask the question has been shouted down by gloating Leave voters, without any real answers. On the one hand, I hope it’s a miserable failure so people can see what mistakes they’ve made. But really, more than that, I want something good to come of it, so that my cost of living doesn’t go through the roof and the cracks in our society don’t become gaping chasms, swallowing the most vulnerable and desperate. It is a hideous irony that the people who’ve been promised a brighter future are going to be the worst affected by any economic downturn.
I studied history at university and wrote a dissertation on Chinese immigrants in the UK, so I know a little about this country’s history of xenophobia. The golden age that people believe we can return to never existed. People have been moving, exploring, and setting up homes in new countries since the beginning of the human race. Leaving the EU doesn’t mean closing our borders, despite what Farage and his cronies have said. If you’re uncomfortable hearing other accents and languages, then you’re going to continue to be uncomfortable. All this vote has done is mean everyone else is uncomfortable too, uncomfortable that they will encounter racism, or uncomfortable that people abroad will assume anyone from the UK must be racist or unwelcoming.
This prevailing political climate and its resulting mood of intolerance has had other ramifications too. My partner is a history lecturer and his department is being shrunk, slowly and deliberately, by people who believe that the humanities are not worthwhile subjects. The push to encourage students to study mathematics, science, technology, and other “career-focussed” subjects instead of history, English literature, languages, drama, or the arts, is having serious knock-on effects for schools and universities. Recently one university announced the closure of its humanities department, and SOAS, famed for its teaching of the history, politics, and languages of Africa, Asia, and the Near and Middle East, is cutting costs by refusing to allow research leave for its lecturers.
There are a lot of other issues with the higher education system at the moment, and I can’t hope to outline them all here. Most are connected with the rise in tuition fees, meaning that universities have become businesses first and foremost, rather than centres of learning. Smaller universities are feeling under pressure as the cap on student numbers was lifted in 2015, meaning more popular universities with high league table placings are taking more and more students (even if they don’t get the grades – who cares when they’re paying so much money?). For these less prestigious, smaller universities looking to cut costs to combat falling student numbers, the humanities departments are first under fire (except with SOAS, where the whole university is all arts and humanities – they offer no STEM subjects at all, just glorious learning about the history, politics, and culture of other societies. I studied there myself so I may be biased). As students are placed under more and more pressure to do a “worthwhile” subject, one that gives some chance of guaranteeing them a job, the number of students taking arts, humanities, and languages subjects (even at GCSE and A level) has dropped.
What does all this have to do with Brexit? Well, it seems to me there are a few factors here. One is the slowness of economic growth since the 2008 recession. The jobs market is tough, people are frightened of not being able to find something and of having to live at home for the next twenty years, or be stuck in terrible shared accommodation because they can’t save enough to rent on their own, let alone buy somewhere. It makes sense that people are more likely to choose practical-sounding subjects, and they’ve been given a lot of help in that way of thinking by the government’s push towards STEM subjects.
The thing I find odd about that is, I work in a tech company and a few years ago, when we were still a young company, someone working for a government initiative wanted to bring a group of students to talk to us about the usefulness of studying STEM. I thought, that’s a nice idea, and then I looked around the room. Our CEO studied music. Our COO studied philosophy and languages. Our CCO studied English Literature. A colleague who went on to found our Growth team hadn’t gone to university at all. I was a history graduate. We were an amazing advert for arts and humanities degrees, but a hopeless advert for STEM. Even today, when the company has grown to over 100 people, we have masses of people who studied all arts and humanities at university, or didn’t go at all.
Unfortunately, nobody seems to believe this is possible anymore. I studied something I loved, that made me excited to study, that got more interesting the more I read, and was too big and complicated for me to ever be able to grasp it completely. You could say I don’t use my university education now, that studying Chinese, Japanese, and African history was useless. Except that the skills I learned – how to research, and consider the source of everything I read, and what the motivations were of the people who’d written it, not to mention seeing things from someone else’s point of view – someone I’d never met and will never meet – all this has stood me in very good stead at every job I’ve ever had, but also in this extraordinary world of fake news and untrustworthy leaders.
The other link I can see between the extraordinary decision to leave the European Union, and this lack of interest in studying subjects simply for the love of them, is to do with a lack of vision. There is a lack of imagination, a closure of minds, and a lack of tolerance that has brought us to this place. I would also argue it’s thanks in part to the appalling state of our country’s history courses. I was never taught anything about the British Empire at school, I only learned about it at university – and then, because it was SOAS, I didn’t learn it from the British point of view, but from the point of view of those we colonised. The alarming hubris of those people who have voted to leave the EU because they think it will be some kind of return to Britain’s glory days is so deluded I don’t even know where to start. Millions of people have been fooled by one small group of people, people who will suffer none of the negative consequences if it all goes wrong. Some people are saying that these crises will never come, that we’re going to be better off than ever before – that the left are the ones promoting the propaganda. Either way, we’re watching history in the making.