Brexit logo and University of Surrey library shelves

2020 has been an unusual year for everyone. However, pressure in the worlds of further education, the importance of overseas students and the role of Brexit and European Studies came together at the University of Surrey’s Politics Department and its Centre for Britain and Europe (CBE). Professor Amelia Hadfield is the Head of Department of Politics and Director of the Centre for Britain and Europe as well as being a member of the Editorial Board of the Round Table. We put a few questions to Professor Hadfield about Autumn term 2020, Brexit and the Commonwealth. 

Q: As a relatively young Professor and Head of Department, how has the first term of this academic year been for you?

The Autumn 2020 term was a tough one in many ways. Few staff were able to really wind down during the summer, as they were working hard on updating their online learning provisions on our various VLEs: Virtual Learning Environments, and doing a lot of pre-recording in preparation for students returning. The term itself was relatively problem-free, although I recognise in Guildford we had a far easier ride than in many other university towns! The students were delighted to be back in the classroom for the most part, but as the term wore on, many of them struggled with the demands of hybrid learning – a mixture of online provision and face-to-face learning – and we saw classroom numbers dwindle, particularly as tiers and lockdowns were re-imposed. I suspect a tough semester for 2021, but very much hope that testing and vaccinations will allow our students to have a far more normalised second semester, particularly for those in their final year of studies.

Q: How hard has it been for your department to put together this so-called “blended learning” – the mix of virtual and face-to-face education now needed in the midst of the pandemic?

Getting the balance right is tough. Putting too much pre-recorded info online tends to discourage the students in some senses; so pre-recorded lectures need to be slimmed right down to be an engaging 15 minutes, accompanied by additional links to watch, or bespoke activities for the weekly theme etc. Equally, some students discovered a newfound freedom, engaging far more online than in the classroom, and working well independently. The mix was therefore twofold: a robust balance of exactly what is needed for students to achieve learning objectives in a wholly new structure, but ensuring that the mix itself is still part of an overall learning community that students can genuinely feel part of, including wellbeing support.

Q: Will the foreign student demographic be missed?

In the end, UniSurrey didn’t suffer an enormous downturn in terms of fewer international students. I’m more concerned with students’ difficulties in getting back to campus for the Spring semester in 2021, as well as the longer-term problem of indicating to EU students that we’re still very much open for business.  It’s key that as a UK HEI [Higher Education Institute], we indicate to both EU and international students that we can and will support their learning needs with a wide variety of exciting and employable degrees.

Q: You run the Politics Department at the University of Surrey and you’re also the Director of the Centre for Britain and Europe. Has Brexit led to a greater interest in your subject and the work of your Department and your Centre?

Brexit has been bittersweet; it represents one of the most significant social, political and economic upheavals in our lifetime. For higher education, as well as research and innovation, the majority of these upheavals have been complex and represent material reversals in the short-term. Longer term benefits however will likely emerge on both sides. For those like me who specialise in both European areas, and UK-EU relations (including foreign policy), Brexit and its media coverage has meant increased attention, and opportunities, to provide clear, objective analysis on a whole range of challenging policies, from geopolitics to market access, from Erasmus to border controls. The scope for our Centre for Britain and Europe for example to gain a toehold within this emerging national conversation is positive in this sense, and we’ve been working hard to produce various Briefing Notes, hold online forums, and work with local government to indicate the range of changes we’re likely to see cross-sectorally.

Q: Brexit and the Commonwealth – is there still a trend of thought that trade with the Commonwealth can replace trade with Europe?

No, not really. While the category of the UK’s ideal trade relationship with the EU has Commonwealth connotations – e.g. the Canada-style deal, or the (more likely) Australia-deal, there’s no scope that the UK can even remotely replace its EU-oriented trade in goods and services with Commonwealth countries. It’s more likely that trade, as well as immigration will undergo a more internationalised conversion – British companies and  politicians alike- looking abroad to source new deals. My sense is that the last decade’s focus on opportunities with China is now slowly being replaced by wider interest in other countries, starting with India (including areas like student recruitment).

Q: What is the most asked question on Brexit and the Commonwealth and how do you respond?

Probably queries as to the ongoing relevance of the Commonwealth in terms of UK foreign policy, as well as Britain’s own role in the Commonwealth. I’ve integrated the topic of the Commonwealth into my undergraduate module on International Organisations, so I’m able to teach on the impact and role of the Commonwealth within global governance, and I’ve really enjoyed doing that this year. Students were largely unaware of the wide range of activities that the Commonwealth undertakes, and were particularly interested in climate change, as  well as parliamentary and constitutional support. I’m always keen to raise the profile of the Commonwealth in my own teaching and analysis on foreign policy, largely because I feel it continues to be relevant.

Q: In writing for Round Table in early 2020, you referred to the Irish border; since then, the issue has become more fraught. How do you feel the latest developments have affected relations with Ireland?

There’s a makeshift agreement in place as agreed between Cabinet office Minister Michael Gove and the EU, essentially for a period of grace regarding the need for customs checks. However, the wider question of managing customs in the long term between the UK on the one side, Northern Ireland on the other, which remains in the Single Market but not the Customs Union, and the Republic of Ireland will need to be closely monitored. The practical issues of customs forms, payments, taxes, rules and regulations are not a great deal clearer at this point. Clarity from the wording of the EU-UK Partnership Agreement, as well as its actual implementation will be the real challenge.

Q: How do you see the UK’s relationship with Europe settling down in the medium to long term? Passions have been stirred, could this leave a long term mark?

I’m optimistic that the EU-UK Partnership Agreement will form a workable staging ground for a wide range of other issues, both those areas that likely haven’t been treated with much depth – like police and judicial cooperation – and those which likely have yet to be agreed upon, including foreign and security policy. In some areas, including the management of mobility, including visas and various civil rights, there may be rancour down the line; on topics like post-Covid recovery, climate change and transatlantic relations however, I feel there will be workable symmetry between the two sides.

Q: Is this current situation storing up future diplomatic problems for Britain?

I think this relies both upon how the EU see itself as a regional and global actor, in key spheres and on key topics, and the philosophy, budget and commitment behind the emerging policy of Global Britain.