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Professor Catherine Barnard elected a Fellow of the British Academy

Catherine Barnard is Professor of EU Law and Employment Law at Cambridge and Senior Tutor at Trinity. In 2019 she was awarded the Pilkington Prize for Teaching at Cambridge and in 2020 she was elected a Fellow of the British Academy.

Here Professor Barnard talks about living and working in Cambridge, researching EU migrant experiences in the UK, and her role as Senior Fellow in the UK in a Changing Europe programme.

Professor Catherine Barnard is Senior Tutor at Trinity and Senior Fellow in the UK in a Changing Europe programme

What drew to you to the discipline of Law initially?

A number of the reasons that attract most students to law – a desire to see justice and fairness, a passion to help the underdog and make the world a better place. As you get older, the complexities of the world and of law become clearer but labour law is a good place to explore these issues, and judgments, such as the Supreme Court’s decision in the Unison case quashing employment tribunal fees, show the good that litigation can do.

What impact has your research had on migrants’ lives and people’s understanding of their experiences?

As part of the ESRC-funded UK in a Changing Europe (UKCE) programme, I have been looking at the experiences of mainly low-paid EU migrants in the UK – for example, are they getting their employment rights, are they able to enforce those rights? At the moment we are tracking the experiences of those applying for EU Settled Status, the right to live in the UK after Brexit. I have spoken extensively in public about these matters. The next stage of the research looks at how advice agencies deliver help on the ground to EU migrants and how their work might be harnessed to make more substantive change.

Did you ever imagine your expertise about UK-EU relations would become so relevant to policy makers and the public?

No, not quite in the way that it actually happened – through Brexit. UKCE has been set up to provide impartial information about Brexit. During 2016, public engagement became the dominant part of the role and this has continued. I am committed to public engagement. I think academics have a lot of knowledge and insight that they can bring to the public debate. Brexit has exposed wide political divisions but also created a huge public thirst for information.

You operate in a highly politicised arena where debate is often polarised. How do you navigate these choppy currents?

This has been one of the most challenging parts of the public engagement. UKCE is non-partisan. It prides itself on giving facts and setting out the case for both sides. But in this environment facts are not seen as objective and they are quickly seized on by both sides to make their case or to allege the speaker is biased.

What is your prognosis for the UK five or ten years post-Brexit?

Prediction is a mug’s game and so much depends on factors over which we have little control, not least the trajectory of Covid-19. I hope there will be an EU-UK trade deal by the end of the year, not least because without one the acrimony on both sides will be serious and risk poisoning relations with our nearest neighbours for years to come. A trade deal, even a very thin one, will at least pave the way for both sides to keep talking about other matters of common interest, opening the possibility of a more harmonious relationship with the EU in the years ahead.

Senior Tutor of Trinity is an important role at the College and within the University of Cambridge. What do you see as the biggest challenges for Trinity and Cambridge in the next 20 years?

At the moment Covid-19 is front and centre of the challenges facing the Collegiate University. The financial hit has been huge and the virus is forcing us to rethink every aspect of what we do. Not all of this is bad – it has required us to be much more experimental in teaching and examining methods – but in a crowded environment like a Cambridge College, keeping students as safe as possible is a real challenge.

Brexit will also be a significant challenge – a number of our networks are European based and these will need to be rethought. Many European students will struggle to pay overseas fees. Climate change is also forcing us all to take a very hard look at what we are doing – from academic travel to conferences to reducing our carbon footprint in old buildings but, more positively, applying our brainpower to coming up with solutions to address the problems. And then there is the vital issue of inclusion – how to make those who perhaps feel that Cambridge is not for them feel that they can thrive here and make a connection that endures for the rest of their lives.

What are the three aspects of living and working in Cambridge that you most enjoy?

The best thing about Cambridge is the collegiate system, which enables the different disciplines to live and work together in a way that does not exist elsewhere in higher education. The collegiate system is the embodiment of interdisciplinarity. Lockdown has shown just how important day-to-day contact is with wonderful colleagues and students. Lockdown has also revealed how much eating together and events in College enable not only social interaction but also ideas to flow. We’re all looking forward to the return of that in due course.

Finally, I love the quirks of Cambridge. I was in the Wren Library last week and Newton’s walking stick was sitting on a desk. It had an unusual handle – a man with a beard. The Librarian said he now thinks Newton may have carved the walking stick himself.

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