Another Brexit sim roundup

This is as guest post from Christopher Huggins (Keele):

Over the course of this semester my students at Keele have been taking part in a Brexit negation simulation alongside students from the University of Surrey and Memorial University in Canada. Simon has been posting regular updates about it, but, given the three groups of students came at this from different perspectives, I wanted to offer my own take.

Why do it?

My students all study a third year module titled ‘Debating the Future of the European Union’. This module gets the students to examine some of the main issues which feature in the wider debate about what the future holds for the European Union. This includes the Eurozone crisis, the EU’s international role, and, of course, Brexit.

As Simon has already noted, the challenge with teaching Brexit is that it is hideously complex. It’s also a ‘live’ contemporary political event – it’s happening while the students study it. This makes using traditional teaching tools difficult. There’s no textbook for the students to use a reference and academic literature is only stating to emerge. While there is a constant stream of information from the media, think tanks and the, it can be difficult to make sense of the barrage of information. Given the students are based in a British university and are largely digesting British media, the information they’re being exposed to is heavily UK-centric.

All of this made Simon’s open invitation to participate in the simulation an offer too good to refuse. It was directly relevant to my students’ studies. It was a way for them to actively engage with the complexities of a political event unfolding around them. It would help them to focus their attention on a specific aspect of Brexit (the process of negotiation), while also encouraging them to look beyond a narrow UK perspective.

The successes

There were two main motivations for getting involved. Firstly to expose students to the inherent complexity involved in negotiating Brexit. Secondly to get them to recognize that the UK is not the only party in this negotiation.

In this respect the simulation was a success. Talking to my students afterwards, many commented how it encouraged them to find out to the positions of other EU member states, and they all seemed to come away with an appreciation that the internal politics of the other EU member states would play a significant role in shaping their positions and, therefore, the outcome of the negotiations. Some were even brave enough to admit they probably wouldn’t have bothered to consider this had the simulation not prompted them to.

There were other learning points too. For example we decided on sending a delegation of six of my students (rather than all 22) to the live negotiation. This was mainly for financial reasons, but it also had the advantage of reinforcing the multi-level nature of EU negotiations. Groups would first have to develop their own position based on internal political preferences, before bringing that to the wider negotiation. Sending delegates to act as ‘ambassadors’ also mirrored how some EU negotiations work in real life. During the simulation the Netherlands group agreed one of their ‘red lines’ would be any restrictions on freedom of movement. And yet in the excitement of the final vote the lone Netherlands delegate voted to give the UK single market access/membership and emergency brake on freedom of movement without sanction, going against their national position. This promoted some nice discussions with the students about the desire for consensus in EU decision making, the presence of an ‘esprit de corps’ between EU negotiators and the potential role of socialization dynamics.

It was also great to get the students interacting outside their normal cohort. Universities not only foster students’ learning, but also develop their wider cultural awareness and communication and interpersonal skills. So it was great to see students across all three groups build a good rapport, talk to each other over the length of the semester, and socialize.

The challenges

Simon has already spoken of the ‘on the fly’ approach we adopted for this. It all worked out in the end, but there were moments of miscommunication and misunderstanding. There was also the added complication of distance for us. To make the most of it we needed students to travel down to Surrey and take part in the live negotiation. As mentioned we sent down a delegation of six, with the school covering travel and accommodation costs. The amount of money required was relatively modest and I had the full support of my head of school, but we still had to go through an internal process of gaining approval, checking there was enough money in the school budget and then, as this was an officially university sanctioned trip, making all the arrangements through the university’s approved travel agents. All of this really highlights the importance of thinking through the practicalities of organizing these sorts of simulations.

The other main challenge was trying to maintain student involvement over a semester long simulation. Simon noted we basically left the students to it and this inevitably meant some disengaged. As Simon suggested in his post more structure might have helped here. Because we joined the simulation relatively late on (in part due to the lengthy approval process described above), it was effectively an informal add-on to the module. With extra planning it could have been more rigorously incorporated into the teaching programme.

Another issue was that not all the students felt fully invested in the simulation. To begin with all were involved in the initial discussions in their country-specific groups. However only six were going to Surrey for the live negotiation, and maintaining the involvement of those who weren’t coming, especially in the latter stages (when assessment deadlines also started to hit), proved difficult.

These issues aside, engaging the students in the simulation was worth it.  They came away with a greater appreciation with the complexities of Brexit and the position of the other EU member states. On a more personal level it’s taught me more about simulations, both the benefits of collaborating with colleagues and students from other institutions, but also the need to better prepare and address the practicalities.

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