A final Brexit sim reflection

In our last post on this, Matthew LeRiche (Memorial) talks about his takeaways from our Brexit game held before Christmas.


With the semester now over and course commentary and review in progress it is clear that the Brexit simulation lead by Simon Usherwood in conjunction with Chris Huggins was one of the highlights for my undergraduate students. This past semester the Political Science Department at Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN for short) was able to run its Public Policy Certificate program based at our UK based Harlow Campus – a gift from Lord Taylor many moons ago and a great platform to link our North American students to Europe and the world.

Although tardy in my contribution to the de-brief from the exercise, the following is a reflection on the exercise from my perspective and that of my students. The multi-layered nature of this simulation afforded great opportunity for learning. In particular, it afforded different learning to take place for the different groups involved, since the various groups of students involved from different institutions were undertaking quite different courses. For the MUN group, the key challenge and thus most important learning opportunity was the need to reconcile internally and manage the process of balancing several internal interests to then engage in a single front in a negotiation. For a group of public policy students this afforded an opportunity to think more deeply about the public policy process.

Also, particularly valuable for the courses I was teaching, the simulation allowed me the situation to have the students learn a number of key skills from writing briefing notes, organizing teams, group work (often over large distances), and researching positions of other actors. Most of all however was the opportunity to teach about the key internal institutional politics which often frame and define public policy.

Since I would second all of what Simon has posted in his initial reflection and Chris in his, I will focus on the multi-layered nature of the simulation and its complexity.

Both Simon’s and Chris’ students were in much smaller groups making up the various other EU states, while the MUN students were divided into two larger groups the UK and EU Parliament. The UK team was the largest of the groups, all of who were given different assignments, from Prime Minister to line Ministers. Their different roles created internal hierarchies and responsibilities and substantive issues emerged in preparatory groups and between groups working on different issues. There were those with very strong views on certain aspects of the approach while others focused on outcomes. Some took more ideological positions, with still others desperately trying to ‘muddle through’ amidst a mountain of other coursework. The complexity of the simulation paired with the complexity of the challenge of Brexit made for a great range of learning opportunities.

Drawing from the British context in which we were residing for the semester, the students ended up being pragmatic in their approach and they muddled through. It is worth pointing out here that it was particularly useful that the community around the MUN UK campus voted for Brexit and so the students had the opportunity to engage with people about this and gained deeper understanding of the choice, a vote which confused most of the Canadian students. So, as with my own time studying in the UK many years ago, the students discovered that evenings at the local pub after planning meetings, were almost as valuable as teaching time or readings in developing an understanding of Brexit and as an opportunity to engage in debate and discussion.

The Brexit simulation while on a study abroad proved how valuable experiential learning and study-abroad are as educational tools. The depth and layered opportunities for learning could not have been replicated in a pure classroom setting at home.

Its worth reiterating that the MUN students involved in the simulation were different from those of Simon’s and Chris’ as they were public policy students rather than negotiation or European politics students. So the task of playing the UK in a simulation with a group of largely UK students was very daunting. The MUN group were sufficiently anxious that they were in-tough with negotiation students who knew the EU “inside and out”, as one of my students put it. This sense of challenge was a further value to this particular simulation for my group of students. Students in the arts and humanities are too rarely confronted with a sense of challenge of this kind, which they will encounter unceasingly in the ‘real’ world after their university experience transitions to work.

From my perspective, the benefit of the exercise was the chance to dig-into a messy exercise, challenge students’ approaches to thinking abut other actors and learning about the UK and the significant events of Brexit, which will have wide political and policy ramifications in Europe and the world. Most important it got my students excited and engaged in their coursework. Above all else, it gave them a chance to connect with peers in the UK bridging the trans-Atlantic divide.

My main goals were achieved largely by virtue of just taking part, so I can’t say enough about how great an opportunity this was and how deeply appreciative I am to Simon for creating the opportunity.

So, to conclude, the key take-away, which was made very clear in student reviews so-far, is that the internal wrangling within the UK team, fundamentally framed what took place in the face-to-face negotiation held in Surrey on December 5th. The multi-layered structure of the simulation allowed this. The confusion and confrontation that occurred within the group of students playing the UK, reflected very well the issues that the UK is now facing as they move forward in the Brexit process. The key challenge not being the negotiation day itself but negotiating internally and attempting to resolve a single voice. So a number of organizational and political lessons were learned by the MUN group as they played the UK.