[Commentary] Thoughts, Fears, & Brexit

I was invited to write this piece for the Times Higher Education blog, where it was originally published on 26 June 2016 under the title “‘I’m scared’: German academic in the UK on the Brexit vote”. You can read the original post here, and it is reproduced word for word, without alterations, below

I am an immigrant. Moving to the UK was a dream of mine ever since I can remember. England was, after all, home to bands like The Clash and The Vibrators, and this was as good a reason as any for a teenager to determine that her future home would be somewhere in the British Isles.

When I arrived at Manchester in 2005 to study for an undergraduate degree, and with the intention to settle here permanently, I found a country which, for the most part, was filled with people who were kind as well as polite.

Away from home, I felt I could start afresh, an opportunity I would never have been able to take if EU students like me hadn’t been eligible for tuition fee loans.

Culturally, it was a shaky start. My German frankness wasn’t always judged as endearingly odd; and it still gets me in trouble on occasion, actually. But I loved what I had found: diverse communities, friendly people, civilised queues, and good tea.

My continental education served me well: I felt more independent than my British counterparts, and I was driven and lucky enough to be awarded a PhD scholarship before I had even attended my graduation ceremony for my undergraduate degree. Without this scholarship, I would have never been able to pursue a research career.

I have no idea what I would have done, to be honest. Since finishing my PhD, I have spent much of my time and energy on trying to help make academia in the UK more inclusive, especially for women, for working-class students, and for immigrants.

But over the past few years, something has changed.


I realised that I was reading hostile media commentaries on immigration on an almost daily basis. People who I thought were friends posted status updates and images which suggested that “foreigners” ought to have a card machine next to their hospital beds. The words “scrounging”, usually juxtaposed with “hard-working”, made a far too regular appearance in the papers and on my social media timelines in relation to the working classes and those not born in this country.

I began pointing out to people that I – though white, highly educated, and bilingual – was also an immigrant. The responses were shocking. I wasn’t the issue, they said. I was decent, they told me. After all, I had a job.

I wasn’t a scrounger who wanted everything handing on a plate. I learned that these people seemed to judge my value as a human being on my economic status and my employment. Friends indeed.

Slowly, the picture changed. I saw that here was a country in which only a small number of natives are fluent in a second language because connecting with other people in their mother tongue is apparently not desirable; at least not enough to justify adequate funding for language teaching. Why learn when the world caters to your linguistic requirements?

I began to realise that Britain still seems to think of itself as something of an empire. Somehow, this country that I had come to love despite its flaws – this country with no industry to speak of, with a collapsed banking sector, and with the biggest inequalities in the Western world – still thought it was special. So special, in fact, that over half of its electorate seems to think they can safely discard the lessons of history.

The European Union was a safety measure and antidote to the nationalism that had swept across Europe during, and indeed caused, the Second World War.

I am scared. I am scared because a country that has steadily mainstreamed racism, xenophobia, and a deluded sense of self-importance has decided it is above this union of nations; above a group of countries that have come together to keep each other in check and to protect their peoples’ rights across national borders.

Somehow, this country has decided that it is best off facing the world alone. Somehow, this country seems to think the way forward is isolation. Somehow, this country appears to think that its issues are down to the European Union rather than a political elite that is as representative of the British population as Bavaria is of Germany.

I try to be hopeful, but I struggle. Many friends – virtual and real – tell me they are sorry, and that I am welcome here. The youngest generation of voters – which includes my students – have made it clear that they want a Britain that is connected to Europe and to the world.

This vote will affect them the most, and quite possibly for the rest of their lives. All I can do is hope they are still proud to be taught by a working-class woman who speaks two languages. All I can do is continue to teach them how to pick apart the messages and myths of hate thrown at them by the media and by politicians every day.

All I can do is help them realise that silence can be fatal when you encounter discrimination and hatred. I hope they will speak up for those who now need it the most, and more than ever. I know they would speak up for me, if I was no longer welcome.