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Let’s talk about the EU…

As everyone knows the EU referendum looms. Trinity’s Senior Tutor and Professor of European Union Law and Employment Law at Cambridge, Catherine Barnard, reflects on engaging with the media and the public on the contentious issues raised by the EU membership debate.

Catherine Barnard on ITV
Catherine Barnard on ITV

On 23 June, British, Irish and Commonwealth citizens aged over 18 who are resident in the UK and on the electoral register will be able to vote. (As will British citizens living abroad who have been on the UK electoral register in the past 15 years.)

As a College that seeks to engage with the wider world and to enable its members to take part in the most important decision for the UK for a generation, our message is clear. Trinity believes that members of the College should participate in this democratic process. To that end, the traditional ‘harangues’, when students and their Tutors meet, are an ideal opportunity to encourage students to register to vote, or arrange a postal vote if they will be away on 23 June. The deadline for registering to vote in the EU referendum is 7 June.

It would be hard to escape the increasingly fervent debate over Brexit, and media coverage will doubtless increase as the date draws closer. I have experienced the growing appetite for expert comment on several of the issues thrown up by the prospect of the UK’s departure from the EU, including arguably one of the most contentious: immigration.

As the recipient of funding from the ESRC’s UK in a Changing Europe programme, I am required to engage with the public as much as possible – in a strictly non-partisan way – about the EU. And my research project with Dr Amy Ludlow, of Gonville and Caius, explores the experiences of EU migrants in the UK – real-life, not imagined, stories of finding work and accommodation, receiving kindnesses and facing discrimination, attitudes to benefits, the British and – of course – the weather.

School students debate the issues
School students debate the issues

There does seem to be a gap between academic research about the many issues raised by Brexit and people’s confidence in their knowledge of those issues. ‘What does Brexit mean?’ is one of the most frequent Google searches about the EU. That appetite for ‘the facts’, for greater knowledge, and for understanding of the pros and cons of a debate or decision, may have a better chance of being satisfied if new ways of assessing universities and their academics’ research continue.

The 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) examined ‘impact’ as a measure of universities’ success for the first time. So ‘an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’ was counted alongside the traditional academic feather-in-cap of journal articles and (single-authored) books.

Impact, assessed by case studies of academics’ research, counted for 20% in the 2014 REF. Disseminating your research is not, on its own, sufficient to count as impact. But whatever definition is adopted and weighting given in the next assessment of universities, due out in 2020 or 2021, it is highly likely that ‘impact’ will feature. And more and more of us will seek to engage with audiences beyond academia.

To that end, in a bid to help answer questions about immigration and employment law, I have taken part in public fora, including events at schools and town halls, written articles for broadsheets and blogs, and been interviewed by local radio and national television.

I also use social media to disseminate my research and connect with migrants to encourage them to participate in our project. Both UK in a Changing Europe and Full Fact (another project with which I am involved) have excellent websites. Full Fact responds to questions from the public. Often those are very different to questions that academics ask themselves during their research.

Traditional media, especially broadcast, has to be innovative to respond to the needs of voters in this debate – which is a challenge, given tightly-packed news bulletins. A typical news ‘package’ is two to three minutes.

Recently, ITV began a ‘Finding the Facts’ series about key issues in the EU referendum debate. Driving through a city street in a striking red Mini complete with Union Jack bonnet, ITV News’ National Editor Allegra Stratton unpicked the competing arguments of the Leave and Remain campaigns. These were superimposed on the dashboard and then the faces of academics, myself included, appeared in the wing-mirror (not a great look), before cutting to bite-sized answers.

Does all of this public engagement and media work amount to ‘impact’ for the purposes of the REF? Not necessarily. But the knowledge that we have gained as academics, funded largely by the taxpayer, should be put to good use – especially in a decision of this importance. The public wants to know. We have a duty to try to explain.

This blog reflects Professor Barnard’s views and not the position of Trinity College or Cambridge University.

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