Image: The Millennium Report, 2016
Image: The Millennium Report, 2016

Little England triumphs

Well, Little England has triumphed at last. The votes in suburban and industrial England and Wales were enough to defeat Londoners, Scots and the Northern Irish. So not only can we expect the future dismantling of the European Union, we will also probably see the end of the United Kingdom. Poor Queen – she must feel sick as a parrot as she considers the consequences. Also the old, as always, punished the young. The young mainly wanted to be outward looking Europeans; the old outvoted them, forcing them to remain in Little England (unless, like I did, they can escape).

It was not a surprise to me. Right up to the closing of the voting, and despite a last day uplift in the Remain support in opinion polls, and despite the bookies and the smart money, I was convinced that Britain would leave. Like most referendums, it was driven by emotion, not logic, and for many Brits, when they got in the voting booth, their emotions would take over.


Punish the bastards (the bastards being ‘them’, the invisible but omniscient ‘elite’ who have got us into this mess.)

Back to the glory days when Britain ruled the world and England won football matches.

No more Frogs and Krauts telling us what to do.

No more invasion by Syrians and terrorists.

How predictable. How sad.

It is a disaster that could have been avoided. David Cameron is staying on for three months ‘to steady the ship.’ Sorry, Mr. Cameron, but the ship has already sunk, and it was you who pulled the plug when you thought a nice little referendum would get those pesky Euroskeptics in your party off your back. What a petty motivation for destroying not only a country but a continent.

Well, of course, it won’t be as bad as that, will it? The panic and shock will slowly dissipate, the money people will work out new ways to make money, and Putin won’t be nasty and invade the Baltic states, will he? People are resilient and will find a new way through.

So let’s look forward and see what the implications are for online learning in Europe, which is almost as important as the Euro nations soccer championship (will England be disqualified now)?


In the 1990s, there wasn’t a lot of online learning happening in Europe, although there were several big open universities: the UK Open University was dominant, but there were also sizeable open universities in Spain, the Netherlands and Germany. In online learning, some Norwegian distance education institutes, such as NKI, were launching online courses. When EDEN, the European Distance Education Network, started in the early 1990s it was mainly dominated by the big open universities, but it began to expand its membership by dropping institutional membership and moving to individual membership. This was important in bringing in many new participants, some of whom were European leaders in online learning. But the UK OU was still the major player, even though it was relatively slow in moving to online learning.

At the same time, the European Commission had launched a number of major funding programs that focused on ICTs (information and communications technologies) in education, such as the DELTA program. These were often large, unwieldy projects that required participants from several countries, particularly from those countries that were struggling economically or were ‘new’ to the EU, and also required sometimes a minimum of three industrial partners. Although such projects often got bogged down in trying to balance the interests of all the participants, were often slowed down by stifling bureaucratic requirements from the EC, and one or two participants from more economically advanced countries ended up doing most of the work, these programs were useful for widening the expertise in the area of online and digital learning across a large number of member states and brought new players into the game. However, in the early 1990s there were only 12 or so member states.


The most significant change has been the expansion to 28 states, incorporating most of the Eastern European countries that were part of the Soviet Union. The EC still has major programs that provide funding for ICTs in education projects (although digital is now the more favoured term). More importantly, many more countries all over Europe now have substantial experience in online learning, as was evident from the recent EDEN conference. Nevertheless, Britain is still a dominant force in this area and has been a major contributor to EC programs in online and digital learning.

Not only will the withdrawal of UK participants be a major blow for many of these European projects, but also UK universities and consultants in the field of online and digital learning will lose out on major funding opportunities and the opportunity to learn from working with European partners. This may not be as bad as in other areas of collaboration or business, because academics and educators will still go to international conferences and share experiences, but nevertheless there will be a net loss both for British and European online practitioners.

What went wrong?

There are people closer to the action who are better placed than I am, but here’s my two cents worth, anyway:

  • Europe got too big, too quickly. It was difficult enough to get consensus with 12 countries with relatively similar economic and social contexts, even if the languages were different. Expanding to 28 countries covering an immensely wide range of languages, cultures and above all, economic circumstances without a change to the overall governance/political model has led to gridlock in decision-making;
  • as a result, the European Union has failed to deal adequately with its three most important challenges: the recovery from the economic recession in 2008; the immigration crisis; and its relationship with Russia. It has showed weakness in responding to each of these admittedly difficult challenges, with negative implications for the average Joe and Joe-ess in Europe and Britain;
  • Britain too suffered badly from the economic recession. Most of its major banks went bankrupt and had to be bailed out with taxpayers’ money. Many of those bankers are still in place, earning almost obscene amounts of money. Although the economy has picked up since 2008, the British government has been running an austerity-focused economic policy, which hits hard unemployed and low income workers and families. Many working class people in the former industrial parts of England have been unemployed through five generations, since the devastation of UK manufacturing industries in the 1980s. Both of the two major political parties have been run until recently by ‘establishment’ figures from public school/Oxbridge backgrounds. A major theme in the run-up to the referendum was the rejection of advice from ‘experts’ (economists, politicians, international leaders and think tanks, the Bank of England) who were seen as an untrustworthy elite who benefit from the status quo. The class war is alive and strong in the UK and getting worse, as a result.
  • at the same time, fed by a viciously simplistic and racist tabloid press, many middle class Brits feel that they are no longer getting the respect they feel they deserve; the Empire has crumbled and their culture is being threatened by a wave of immigrants. England is already full. Last year, Britain, which has a population of 54 million and is geographically smaller than the Canadian Maritimes, took 360,000 immigrants, compared to the whole of Canada (population 34 million), who took 260,000. There are genuine fears that immigrant numbers will increase much more over the coming years, as the Middle East disintegrates further. The Leave proponents deliberately played on these fears.

So in this referendum, there was what we have also seen in the run-up to the USA presidential election: a weird alliance of what appear to be extreme right and extreme left wing voters rejecting and overwhelming the moderate, ‘rationale’ centre in politics. However, unless the genuine grievances of these groups are addressed, we will see similar so-called ‘irrational’ political upheavals in the future. In particular, the widening gap between rich and poor needs to be addressed or we will all end up victims to so-called ‘irrationality’.



  1. By your numbers:

    The UK took 360,000 immigrants into a population of 60,000,000 = 0.6%
    Canada took 260,000 immigrants into a population of 36,000,000 = 0.7%

    So why isn’t Canada declaring a national emergency and immigration crisis?

  2. The exit of the UK from the European Union may present certain challenges with repercussions to the bureaucratic red-tape relating to certain collaborative projects, but nevertheless it may also be a significant opportunity for educational institutions in the realm of online education. An exit from the EU will signify that prospective students who would want to pursue their higher education on campus at UK institutions may be impeded or discouraged due to the tightened immigration policies. This does not translate directly in a decrease in the demand for higher education from UK institutions. Many commonwealth countries in such as Jamaica and Nigeria view degrees from UK institutions as of a high caliber, which can increase their competitiveness in their employment markets. The offering of online higher education from UK institutions such as the University of Leicester and Russell Group universities is highly sought out in commonwealth countries as they provide opportunities for students to obtain their degrees without having to resort to physically transferring to the UK. With this in mind, online education offered by UK institutions can potentially benefit from stricter UK immigration control.

    Providing education through eLearning mediums are international services, and not exposed to limitations of movement of goods or persons (key attributes of being part of the EU). A Brexit can therefore be an impulse for interested students outside of the region to pursue eLearning options by accredited universities in the UK. In order to attend to these prospective students in diverse areas with a variety of infrastructural differences, institutions need to evaluate how to design their programs to be widely accessible. Designing educational programs combining multi-sensory stimulating information delivery methods (i.e. visual and audio), with hybrid online and offline approaches whilst maintaining accreditation standards are challenges online education institutions face. These aspects are where institutions can differentiate themselves, as they compete for the Brexit impacted prospective students overseas.

    I do not think that eLearning being accessible through competition on the European continent will impede prospective students from engaging in UK institutions online. There are factors such as language (even though many open universities offer dual-lingual programs including English) and association, which contribute to the consideration of a UK institution over those in the EU. UK institutions will need to become more innovative with their eLearning delivery methods to remain competitive in the online higher education market, but the Brexit may present opportunities despite the potential loss in funding opportunities.

    • Very interesting and thought-provoking comments, Jan.
      I agree with you that there may be more impetus for UK institutions to move into online learning to attract European students, but at the same time such students are unlikely to benefit from Erasmus grants once the UK is outside the EU. It will depend on how the UK institutions price online learning. However, if they price online learning less than the already high tuition fees for campus-based programs, there will be a (mistaken) sense that online learning course must therefore be inferior.
      I also don’t see online learning vs campus-based teaching as a net zero game, with online learning benefiting from a drop in campus-based students. One of the great unsung benefits (at least during the Brexit campaign) of the EU is the Erasmus program that supports the free movement of students between European countries. There are real advantages in terms of being immersed in another culture and language that students won’t get if they replace that with online learning.
      Lastly the UK already offers online programs to students in Commonwealth countries, for instance through the University of London International Programme, which is, incidentally, the oldest university distance program in the world.
      But I agree with your general point: Brexit provides an opportunity/challenge to UK universities to think differently about recruiting students from Europe, and online learning might be part of the solution.


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