Conservative MP Chris Heaton-Harris has raised a bit of a flap by writing to university vice chancellors, asking who teaches which EU courses, and what exactly it is that they teach.
One doubts any recipient would have been irked if the same letter had come from the Brexit Department and was associated with the prospect of a lucrative consultancy contract, but we’ll let that ride.
What is really shocking to ivory-tower wizards is that anyone dares to challenge their self-presumed status as impartial guardians of Euro-lore. Because, in a number of cases, fair balance is precisely what has long been lacking.
Over more than two decades, I’ve seen professors of EU studies at work. Academics working in the field are indubitably personally more biased towards the EU, taken in the round. A few years ago when I was working on a publication commissioned by Open Europe on how the huge EU propaganda system operated, I decided to run a spot check to test an observation, dropping a line to as many listed UK academics as I could find. I invited them to place themselves (admittedly, very simplistically) on a Euroscepticism scale of 0 to 10, with 0 being Ted Heath and 10 being Bill Cash.
Creditably, I got quite a large number of responses. They were also remarkably forthright in adding personal thoughts (including a couple of particularly insulting replies). Some key points emerged.
Firstly, the mean was around 3.5, confirming that yes indeed, lecturers in EU affairs do tend to be more pro-EU. Two individuals alone bucked the trend.
Secondly, respondees also underlined the need to have balance in the classroom, sometimes noting this was more important precisely because of their own acknowledged leanings.
These responses of course are anecdotal and little more than a fag-packet survey, though further mitigated by the detail that those most likely to be biased were also least likely to respond to the question in the first place. That said, the wide-ranging comments did confirm that there was an inherent risk of bias associated with EU studies that was professionally acknowledged within the sector.
This should be uncontroversial because it is inherent in the nature of research. You pursue a subject because you are interested in the field, and remain drawn to stay in it. The Guardian piece attacking Mr Heaton-Harris indeed has an academic also confirm this very point:
‘Prof Piet Eeckhout, academic director of University College London’s European Institute, says it is unsurprising if most academics working on Europe are in favour of the EU. “I have been teaching EU law for the last 25 years. The fact that I am sufficiently interested to spend all my days working on it obviously means I think EU law is a good thing.”’
That much is surely as obvious as the prospect of a professor in Gender Studies being to some degree more likely to support feminism. Or a lecturer in Proust quite liking France. Or a specialist in St Thomas Aquinas perhaps being a Christian. Or a lecturer in Dialectical Materialism being Communist. Or for that matter an Arabist in the Foreign Office being pro-Arab. Which is where, in an EU context and advice being proffered in Brexit talks, the problems begin.
We are not saying there is total causality and that it applies to everyone. Merely that one might productively look at the average trend, and consider what implications that might in turn generate.
The European Commission recognises academia as an ‘opinion multiplier’ (its terminology) for getting the message across. That core message is that European political integration is a good thing. If you doubt it’s as blunt as all that, I recommend a perusal of communications plans for the Commission’s DG COMM over the past 15 years or so.
The EU’s Jean Monnet scheme for funding EU Studies in its various legal, social and historical guises falls deliberately and quite consciously into that strategic framework. Hundreds of millions of euros supports outlets of EU-ness in academia, not just in the EU but globally. Some schemes are openly politicised; a larger proportion carries baggage with second order effect. The result is a number of people who pop up on TV to be asked their opinions on whether an EU policy, or the EU itself, is a good thing. They are marketed as neutral commentators, but that is not necessarily so. But because it pretends to be so, there is no public health warning.
In some cases, which I shall be generous and state in this country are an absolute rarity, that bias may even be deliberate. Academics are institutionally and professionally more successful if they can puff up their CV. That comes from hosting big conferences, sitting on grand advisory committees, and naturally getting large bounties of grant funding. Which, of course, is a large chunk of what technocratic Brussels is precisely about.
The prospect of critiquing the Commission and being frozen out must conversely also be an equal factor at play, even if as a subconscious risk. Yet it appears to be insulting to some academics even to mention this as a prospect to be mitigated against. Credibly, to a number of others, it does not.
One other thing came out of my pocket survey. I came to the conclusion that the UK was lucky. Compared with the oleaginous output of continental Jean Monnet professors (as expressed for example in supportive quotes bedecking past Jean Monnet Scheme guidebooks), our academics seem to recognise much better the risk of bias and make more of a conscious effort in the classroom to avoid one-sided assumptions. How far they succeed is a matter for the student to comment, and the reporting has notably been very mixed – perhaps exacerbated by students themselves showing the same risks of selection bias when picking their courses.
We might also contrast UK academics with continental counterparts engaged in using their very status while pushing for political integration, such as those behind the little-known Ljubljana Initiative; or the rather public example of academics who underpinned the highly controversial European Public Prosecutor (which has just now been signed off, not that anyone yet seems to have picked up on this extraordinary development). So UK academics are right to be proud of their relative openness contrasted with some other countries.
Well, to a point. Because it’s also clear from having seen many academic platforms at work that Euroscepticism has often been the +1 view bolted on to the end. The default setting has seen the seesaw of debate too often badly unbalanced. You have this EU way of doing business; that EU option; the other EU route; plus just one person invited on to the stage who disagrees with the EU route at all. Keeping tabs over the years on the UK’s association of lecturers in European Studies, it has often looked as if the collective mood music has been one of slight tolerance of Euroscepticism rather than of professionally engaging with it.
As a hard-working MEP on the Budget Committee, Mr Heaton-Harris was an ardent pursuer both of wasteful EU spending, but also of flagrant misuse of EU millions in support of its own integrationist propaganda. As an MP, he has merely asked a question. Anyone who believes questions don’t need to be asked ought to read the Red Cell paper reviewing how the EU finances the Social Sciences in the UK, and what it gets in return. Meanwhile, those in academia who are more open minded than their colleagues might also constructively reflect on what happens to – and what is the purpose of – EU Studies after Brexit, once the EU largesse finally runs out.