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.