This blog post was original published as part of the BISA Postgraduate Network blog series.
More and more British universities offer modules on the study of the European Union (EU). These allow students to learn how the institutions of the EU function and how its policies are made. The debate on how to best teach European Studies is not new. Academic associations, like BISA, frequently organise events and panels on this topic. With the UK’s decision to leave the EU, however, teaching European studies has become a new challenge at British universities. In large part, this is because of the diverging perceptions of, and growing uncertainty caused by, Brexit. This has triggered a new debate about how best to teach EU studies in light of the changing EU-UK relationship.
During my time at the University of Kent, I have taught the ‘Politics of the European Union’ module. Whilst I have enjoyed my teaching on this module, I have met several challenges. Reflecting on these experiences, this blog entry explores some of the challenges and opportunities I have faced teaching the EU after Brexit.
The Challenges of Teaching European/EU Studies during Brexit
Teaching topics of contemporary significance, particularly those as polarising as Brexit, can increase the engagement with the teaching material. At the same time, however, they can also bring about frustration. The negotiations between the UK government and the EU are still ongoing. No final outcome has been agreed. Every day social media and newspapers are overloaded with information on the current state of the Brexit negotiations and their implications. Yet, a lot of this information is blurred and often fails to present the whole picture of the negotiation process
Providing students with the correct information and details in this chaos is much more complicated than with more static topics (IR theory courses come to mind here). Remaining constantly up-to-date also presents another challenge. Students like to stay abreast of the breaking developments, and it is important to come to seminars as prepared as possible. In some instances, new information about the negotiation process was announced after I had finished preparing for my seminars. Thanks to media alerts and online media source, it was possible to also inform students on the most recent developments during class.
To develop their understanding of the EU, my students were tasked to give a 3-minute presentation on an issue they were interested in concerning the EU from a non-British newspaper. In addition to their core readings they were encouraged to follow the media on a weekly basis. I provided a list of newspaper outlets, think tanks and other media sources, and on the Moodle page either the lecturer or I regularly uploaded relevant material on the Brexit negotiations. This allowed the students to get insights from outside the UK, and we hoped to diversify their views on European issues. Students made use of newspapers from the Czech Republic, France and Spain as well as from Australia and the US. In terms of the British media, they followed newspapers ranging from The Daily Mail to The Guardian and The Economist.
What we quickly found, however, is that students often lacked sufficient background information on EU institutions needed to understand what was reported in the media. In order to overcome this issue, we discussed the EU institutions in class and linked them to the media presentations which we had asked the students to prepare. These discussions turned out to be rather opinionated, and not always based on facts and evidence, which has proven to be tricky. What we found is that the use of smaller groups discussions was particularly helpful in encouraging the students to broaden their understanding of the EU, and this later fed into both their debates and presentations.
Discussing the EU and Europe also brings about emotions. The seminar groups were not only a good mix of British, European, and other international students, but were also divided into Leavers and Remainers. Talking about the possible outcomes of Brexit triggered certain emotions in the students, which I – as their seminar leader – had to deal with. While some students were disappointed and frustrated about the negotiation process, others became more and more convinced of the necessity of Brexit. This led to tensions in the classroom. Since everybody has an opinion on the UK’s membership in the EU and on Brexit, teaching the issue as objective as possible posed another challenge which needed to be overcome. We therefore generalised the benefits and disadvantages of EU membership in more abstract terms, and with the help of other European students’ own experience we compared EU membership across several other states. This not only lead to fruitful exchanges and debates, but also helped to illustrate similar perceptions among EU member states
The Opportunities of Teaching European/EU Studies during Brexit
Teaching the EU in the context of Brexit also presents many opportunities. Students seem to be generally interested in the topic, and this was especially the case for British students. This has been demonstrated not only by high seminar attendance, but also by the mid-term and end of term evaluations. Some student comments showed that they particularly enjoyed taking the module thanks to its relevance to their daily lives and the innovative use of newspapers and social media. Regarding the latter, we found that drawing on information from the news and social media helped keep the student’s interest since they increasingly make use of these tools and channels to acquire information and knowledge. Being able to receive input from a variety of sources also diversifies the views and perspectives on the EU.
Throughout the term we had very lively discussions on the functioning of the EU as well as on its various policies. Issues such as the Customs Union and the Single Market, as well as the EU’s external relations, were of high interest among the students. Every student had an opinion of some kind of the EU and on the UK’s position in the negotiation process. This encouraged all the students to participate and conduct extended research to prepare for the seminar sessions. As mentioned above, at times the heated discussions were challenging, yet they were also very stimulating on both sides.
European/EU studies attracts a variety of students from various backgrounds. These students all bring their own understandings, biases of and visions for the European Union. This has allowed for a informative and exciting exchange of ideas between the students. All students were encouraged to share their personal perceptions of the policies as well as workings and developments of the EU. In this context, everyone reflected on their experiences with the EU and shared them with the others. The aim of reflecting here was to critically engage and to build a personal relationship with the EU, and to see how certain events fit into the larger picture of the EU.
Lastly, as someone who has worked within one of the EU institutions and who researches one of the EU’s policy areas, teaching European Studies during the Brexit negotiations also gave me an opportunity to integrate my research and experiences into my teaching. My students valued this and appreciated anecdotes from the so-called ‘EU Bubble’. Combining my research topic and work experience with teaching did not only save time for the preparations, but also added value to the teaching since some students consider working for the EU or a Brussels-based interest group in the future.
Overall, the debate on how to teach European Studies in times of the Brexit negotiations has gained increasing importance. Even in light of the letter sent to university Vice Chancellors by MP Chris Heaton-Harris in early October 2017, who demanded information on how Brexit and the EU are taught at British universities, the topic should not quench any lecturer or teaching assistant to take on this endeavour. Instead, the debate on how we perceive and understand the EU, as well as its future relationship with the UK, presents both challenges and opportunities for postgraduates who teach.
 https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/career-advice-how-teach-brexit (accessed on 12/02/2018)
 http://ukandeu.ac.uk/public-emotions-as-an-indicator-of-the-outcomes-of-the-brexit-negotiations/ (accessed on 12/02/2018)
Nele Marianne Ewers-Peters is a PhD Candidate and Teaching Assistant at the University of Kent.