Oxford’s new head of Brexit strategy has said that academics at universities in Leave-voting areas feel “threatened” as a result of the “racist sentiment” expressed in last year’s vote to leave the European Union.
In his first interview since taking the position as the Head of Brexit Strategy, Buchan told Cherwell he would attempt to combat “that insidious suggestion that people are not welcome, (which) is the thing we absolutely can’t tolerate.”
He said: “In Oxford and the South of England it’s not such a big problem, but I imagine in parts of the country which are very powerfully strong in terms of leave, I think there is quite a lot of racist sentiment and at those universities, I’m sure their academic sta feel really quite threatened.”
Buchan added: “They’re most worried about their staff, they’re worried about students being able to come, they’re worried about their sta being secure and content and having what they need in terms of what we all take for granted in this country, which is free education, free healthcare, free social care.”
Despite this, he confirmed that Oxford has seen a ten per cent rise in applications from European Union students since the referendum last June.
The ten per cent increase in applicants contrasts to a 14 per cent fall in EU applications at at Cambridge.
Buchan said he had voted Remain and was “absolutely horrified by the demagoguery and populism and racism that we’re beginning to see in elections”.
However, Buchan was wary about the University taking an explicitly political role in the coming negotiations.
He said: “I think it’s very dangerous for us to take on a political role. Yes, we need to explain to people the risk, yes we need to set out our view, but it’s not for us to be a political instrument.”
Buchan said he was “worried” about the University being seen as “elitist,” but insisted: “we’ve somehow got to be thought of as being very precious, if you like, one of the national treasures”.
“You know, nobody would criticise Shakespeare, but actually you could say that’s really elitist—‘Shakespeare in Stratford, how elite is that?’ Oxford needs to be a national treasure; we want it to be playing in the Premier League, we want it to be top of the Premier League, but we’ve somehow then got to make that a value to everyone in the community,” he added.
Buchan was appointed to the role of Head of Brexit Strategy in December to “co-ordinate the University’s response to policy developments, and help ensure that Oxford is best-placed to identify opportunities and adapt to this rapidly evolving situation”.
He has previously warned of a post-Brexit “disaster” if the UK were to lose out on the £2 billion of EU funding into the higher education sector.
His priority, he said, was working towards “the values of openness, of scholars being able to move freely, or students being able to come and go, of freedom of expression.”
Oxford will press the government to exclude students from migrant numbers, ensure freedom of movements for academics, and find “mechanisms” to access collaborative EU funding.
Buchan also confirmed that Oxford had received no offer from French authorities to build a campus in Paris, as the Telegraph had suggested last week.
He said: “I think the story was essentially that there were some people that visited—they came to various places including London, Warwick and Oxford, and I think they were promoting the idea that there may be this facility in Paris that they would attract people to.
“I think they were generating the story and wanting the publicity, but there was no conversation about Oxford locating onto this consortium of universities, this campus in the North of Paris.”
Buchan also outlined the potential benefits that Brexit could bring to the University.
He said: “I think it’s about first of all being really upbeat, it’s about being attractive. It’s about using the Brexit challenge to figure out perhaps what we’ve not done as well as we could have.
“And how do we really, really get out there and attract students not just from the UK or from Europe but from around the world? How do we actually use this as a challenge to continue to improve the quality of people applying here.”