Universities’ hysteria betrays anti-Brexit bias

Chris Heaton-Harris MP has created a fuss recently by asking university vice-chancellors for information concerning European Studies courses at their universities and about who was teaching them. The MP has no power to do anything with this information, which, after all, is freely available on university websites. Still, the reaction was that he represented some sort of intellectual thought police concerned to undermine freedom of thought in universities, as if universities themselves were not doing enough on that front, given trigger-alerts, safe spaces, no-platforming and other snowflake phenomena.

Perhaps, though, vice-chancellors had reason to be sensitive about the attitude towards the EU of British universities. Between 1980 and 1990 I was Convenor of the MA in European Studies programme at LSE. I was also co-chairman of LSE’s postgraduate European Studies Research Seminar and met many academics who specialised in the EU.

Were they objective observers? Many of them held titles such as Jean Monnet Professor or Jean Monnet Reader or Jean Monnet Lecturer – which implied that they were wholly or partly funded by Brussels. Most worked on the institutions or policies of the EU and/or how the process of integration developed. Neo-functionalism was very popular as an explanation. All of them took it for granted that European unification was a benevolent aim and that integration brought more peace, prosperity and democracy.

By 1990 I no longer believed this and had become a co-founder of the Bruges Group in 1989, before founding the Anti-Federalist League in 1991 (which became UKIP in 1993). With my public profile my students became discontented and told me I should no longer teach them European history (I never lectured on the EU). The School supported me but I gave up teaching my course to go on sabbatical. When I returned I concentrated on teaching European history in the International History Department.

My former colleagues in European Studies all continued to support the EU. It took a very long time before they admitted there was a democratic deficit, or that the euro was not working. Today leading specialists take a much more critical view of the EU, but they all hate Brexit.

Curiously, so, too, do most academics who are not specialists in the EU. During the referendum campaign the universities were mobilised as never before behind government policy and claimed that Brexit would lead to the withdrawal of all EU research funds and that European and other researchers would no longer come to Britain. Professors of Classics, Archaeology, Literature, Medicine and Science all wrote letters to newspapers claiming this. Vice-Chancellors’ claims were still more adamant and apparently more authoritative. Many were knights, dames or peers.

Yet there was absolutely no evidence for any of this. All EU Research Infrastructure Consortia are open to non-member states and member states on the same basis and both have equal voting rights. The minutes of the relevant meetings of the European Council of December 2013 spell this out. Hence the presence of hundreds of universities, institutes and firms from Israel, Turkey, Cyprus, Switzerland, Serbia and other non-member states in these Consortia. Besides, bodies such as CERN and the European Space Programme have nothing to do with the EU. Finally, the government has promised to make good any funding that might be lost.

Nor is there any evidence that foreign academics have been put off coming here. If they have, it can only have been on account of the anti-Brexit scare stories spread by our universities themselves. None the less, vice-chancellors and professors are still writing ill-informed – if not mendacious – letters and articles in the press. Why can’t they realise that if self-determination for Palestinians can be a good cause, then there is nothing wrong with the British claiming the same right for themselves and doing so quite democratically?

There is no doubt, however, that Brexit is deeply resented by British universities, who see it simplistically as a rejection of international collaboration or even xenophobia. Hence the number of letters to their foreign students assuring them they are still loved and appreciated.

The fact that institutions dedicated to critical thought can take such a monolithic and unscientific view is quite bewildering, not to say depressing. Our academic nomenklatura and its lesser apparatchiks are still behaving like the staff of Soviet universities following the party line – even after the policy has failed.

It also gets personal. On a recent visit to LSE I was rebuked by a former Pro-Director with the words: ‘You were the only person here who voted for Brexit.’ When I attended a leaving party for a colleague, I was accosted by a world-famous historian, who shouted above everyone else in the room: ’F*** off! F*** off! F*** off! You founded UKIP. You are responsible for this mess. So just F*** off!’ It took quarter of an hour to calm him down. Others there clearly agreed with him, although most of my colleagues have behaved admirably.

How much does this matter? Most students are intelligent enough to see the defects of the EU and, whatever their views on Brexit, will recognise propaganda when they are offered it by university staff. In any case, most university courses have nothing to do with the EU. As for grants and foreign staff, nothing will happen to undermine research, so that in the end university life will return to normal.

Chris Heaton-Harris could have found most of the information he sought on-line without upsetting our hugely overpaid and over-sensitive vice-chancellors. Any information he does receive cannot in any case be used in any sinister way by him. But his letter clearly touched a nerve.

British universities have a lot to live down. Instead of acting in a neutral manner during the referendum campaign and merely asking both sides to respect their interests, they behaved in the most grotesquely partisan fashion possible. Let us hope that they have learned their lesson. They have certainly tarnished their reputation for objectivity.

One day Brexit will be seen objectively. Leaving the EU will be seen as less important in British history than giving up the British Empire, which itself has had no adverse consequences. Both Empire and EU membership will be seen as parentheses in the history of an independent Britain.

But when that history comes to be written historians will be really puzzled by the role of British universities. Were they corrupted by EU funding which after all could be easily replaced? Had they been brainwashed by the European Ideal? If so, why? Why was there so little sympathy for an independent Britain? The answers will be interesting.

By Alan Sked, Emeritus Professor of International History at LSE.


The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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  • Alanbungee

    Well said that man, fully support your views. I would like to add that my daughter studied for her degree at Preston, and voted for Brexit, and was intelligent enough to look at the facts and issues surrounding the debate and come to her own conclusions. She was perplexed by the negative comments from her peers trying to get her to change her mind. She is her own woman, and doesn’t go with the crowd. I am very proud that she can think for herself, and not be swayed by her friends.

    • John Walton

      I hope it is indeed true that your daughter can think for herself, because she should be thinking right now about whether her vote was a fully-informed and sensible one. The first link below is to a piece on the site of a Montreal centre-left think-tank. It outlines the tip of an iceberg that good investigative journalism should more fully reveal in due course. If, that is, such enquiry can still propagate in the brave new world that we appear to be entering:-
      One can only hope that if provable illegalities aided the Leave campaign, as is possible, then this will be sufficient to have the referendum result over-turned or ignored. Some at least of the ominous uncertainties that presently cloud your daughter’s future will then lift. Who knows, by way of penance she might even become an investigative journalist!
      If that is her bent, then this article by Steven Erlanger in last Sunday’s New York Times will show her what fine journalism looks like:-
      And, yes. It’s about the self-destructive consequences of the Brexit vote for our country. But then maybe she wasn’t sufficiently concerned about her poor old country.

      • Crimson_Pastille

        You Soros-Bots are hilarious.

  • Ritchie MH

    Why hate Brexit? Simply because it reduces our opportunities and those of future generations in science, education and undermines a Union that has delivered peace, environmental and societal benefits. It isn’t perfect but policy development and implementation is more democratic than the UK, with longer term vision develop through consensus politics.

    Why hate Brexit?

    Uncertainty of the rights of European workers and their families at UK HEIs.
    Uncertainty of UK academics to travel to EU for research/teaching
    Brexit will lead to withdrawal of most future EU research funds unless the UK agree to pay in as do the countries you cite. The UK currently lead many research projects, networks and EU panels – this will become very difficult if not impossible with a UKIP style Brexit.

    The evidence is in the treaties and rules (e.g. H2020 and health Programme rules for participation). Publicly available.
    Bodies such as CERN and the European Space Programme have nothing to do with the EU. Oh except of course the EU provide major funding though the EC programmes, EU researchers and industry and the EC help develop thier strategies and we rely on agreed mobility rules.

    The government has not made commitments to future funding beyond projects already agreed by the Brexit cut-off.

  • C C

    I disagree with this. 1- Universities are not partial. Universities do not value opinions. They value elaborate judgments, based on facts. Universities are not like TV channels which invite people of opposite opinions to debate in a late show. They’re not like BBC Today or other radio programs bringing different ‘opinions’ together. Universities are cosmopolitan, international institutions where knowledge – not opinions – is a priority. Expressing pro-Brexit views in such an environment comes to ignoring that universities are international by nature. Brexit opinions play negatively on colleagues who have a European identity. Most continental Europeans who work in UK universities have a European identity and perceive pro-Brexit views as insulting. And in the most prestigious UK universities, Europeans are in large number, if not in majority 2- I see opinions, but where are the facts? Debates didn’t take place within universities because there was no solid argument in favour of Brexit. Debates didn’t take place because there was no possible debate between a perfectly clear option (the Remain status-quo) and a myriad of other options all exclusive from each other, which were gathered under the umbrella term of “Brexit”. Everybody who voted Brexit has a different view of Brexit, which makes the cold analysis of facts impossible. Universities are still waiting for supportive ‘facts’ from the Brexit side, but supportive ‘facts’ don’t seem to come easily.

  • John Walton

    A historian but one apparently entirely at ease with the past catastrophes unconstrained national sovereignty has unleashed on the world in general and Europe in particular. More of the same seems to be his line. Thanks but no thanks.

  • Graburn69

    Alan Sked was the founder of UKIP. The very idea that he could accuse others of bias in anything is absolutely risible. Is he asking us to think of him as totally impartial?

    And if he thinks loss of empire had no adverse consequences – well, words fail me. Orwell described the British Empire as a captive market. We have never been able to trade competitively because we never had to. We are still living with the consequences of it and this has been seen in our balance of trade for at least a century.

  • Boccadiverita

    For someone who is clearly intelligent enough to have reached Professor status, it is clear he has an anti European, or even anti foreign biais. Nowt so queer as folk.

  • Anthony Dunn

    Delusional, utterly delusional. For any international historian to claim that the loss of Empire and then leaving the European Union will be seen asa “parentheses in history of an independent Britain” shows how utterly clueless this man is. It beggars belief that he can claim to be an historian.

    Something that Prof Sked might care to answer is this: if (as countless many Tories have asserted over the decades) the principal role of any government is the defence of the nation, then at the very heart of the UK’s defence policy is our membership of NATO. At the very heart of NATO is Article 5 of the Treaty of Washington which sets out that an attack on one is an attack on all. Ergo, the UK’s freedom of action is very clearly circumscribed over the single most important aspect of sovereignty any country has. Article 5 is not “if you don’t mind awfully old boy”, it is a clear and deliberate decision to cede national sovereignty to the integrated military structure in which the UK shares decision making and pools sovereignty.

    So just where is Prof Sked (or any other Brextremist for that matter?) in calling (in the interests of consistency and to avoid the accusation of hypocrisy) for the UK to withdraw from NATO? Really Prof. Sked, I am all ears.

  • Craig

    I’ve read some utterly delusional gibberish surrounding Brexit but this screed is up there with the very best.

    Trigger-warnings for rape victims and people with PTSD is “snowflake phenomena”?
    Safe spaces to not include anti-feminists into feminists discussions is “snowflake phenomena”?,
    No-platforming of neo-Nazis and other extremists is “snowflake phenomena”?

    Utter loon.

    You do realise that the term snowflake relates to right wingers who are resistant to positive social change (commencing at the time when attempts were made to abolish slavery in America)?

    Brexit is simply an exercise by alt-fact Libertarians whose disgusting sociopathic anti-democratic ideology is rejected by anyone who deals with facts, reality and has a conscience.

    When history is written, people will wonder how on earth Britain allowed itself to be damaged so badly by UKIP, the press (whose owners have an interest in maintaining their tax affairs) and nutters in the Tory party like Hannan, IDS & Redwood.

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