Beaucoup de vin, and enticing trays of canapés. For a meeting of a major EU-funded research project, no expense was spared. Dapper suits and subtle elegance mixed with shapelessly casual apparel (the former apparently the continental collaborators and the latter the home-grown researchers). Anecdotes of travels and experiences of other cultures and cuisine were exchanged, with the subscript of ‘how cosmopolitan I am’. Little was discussed about the project, the formal meeting having ended, but that would not have been the point anyway. These research collaborations are funded as much to promote a European identity as to make cutting-edge scientific discoveries.
Despite access to patients and databases across multiple countries, return on investment is modest. As researchers become clients of the EU, their creativity is stifled in teams burdened by tokenism, and the enterprise lacks spark. Projects typically run for several years, and not surprisingly British universities want their share of the largesse.
In the referendum campaign, several letters by chancellors and deans appeared in national newspapers arguing that if Britain left the EU, our prestigious universities would drift into academic backwaters. One London university sent an e-mail to all staff instructing them to vote Remain; otherwise, their jobs would be on the line. A member of staff in another institution was admonished for wearing a ‘Vote leave’ badge (while ‘I’m in’ stickers were de rigueur).
Although its website information and expert opinion was wholeheartedly in favour of staying in the happy family of federalism, my university was fairly restrained in its pro-EU stance, and we were spared the propaganda that reverberated in hallowed halls elsewhere. One reason for this may have been the lack of a Europhile consensus among academic staff. Indeed, my impromptu kitchen conversations with professors, lecturers and administrative officers indicated that at least half would be placing a cross in the second option on the ballot sheet. Anyone in favour of Brexit, however, tended to say so in hushed voice, expressing pleasant relief that someone else was voting the same way.
Universities were entitled to make a stance on the referendum, but for one of the most important political debates of our lives, this was a missed opportunity. Where was the debate? We are reaping what was sown with the intellectually stunting student union policies of ‘no platform’ and safe spaces, but censorship also serves institutional interests. Instead of the broader arguments about the EU, and the fundamental question of democracy, discussion of the referendum was narrowly confined to research funding, student movement and European partnerships. Yet lecturers were also considering more pressing problems, such as getting their children into the local school. By instructing staff and students how to vote, some universities acted undemocratically. By suppressing debate, they undermined freedom of speech. Defying these core principles of liberal society is a serious charge against the ivory towers.
Since the Brexit result, universities have sent a proliferation of messages to staff and students, offering reassurances. Yet this is a drama of their own making. Project Fear was pushed hard on campus, and erroneous fears about European citizens being sent home were allowed to fester. Not once did a Leave campaigner suggest this – not even bête noire Nigel Farage, whose immigration points system would actually favour skilled entrants. Students would have heard not the Leave vision of a post-EU Britain, but its parody. The emoting over the referendum has shown how much British society has changed from its erstwhile calm in the face of adversity. Hysteria is not too strong a word for the reaction of shocked Remainers. One hundred years since the Somme – now look at us. Cool heads are needed from our bastions of rational thinking as we move forward from this historic decision by the British people.
There are lessons for future political engagement by universities. We must revive the principles of democracy, debate and freedom of expression, and ensure that students are able to hear opinions different to their own. The rampant ageism and snobbery during the referendum campaign has escalated since the verdict. As satirised by Rob Slane of this parish, I have actually heard students opine that the plebiscite should have excluded older people and thick Sun readers who don’t know how the EU works (in which case, they too should be disqualified). A peasant’s revolt – and aren’t the peasants revolting. This belittling of compatriots is not only insulting; it offends the whole academic ethos.
For the sake of society, universities have an important role in rebuilding trust between the establishment and the common people. Part of this process should involve students in a little soul-searching, to work out why they are so opposed to those who simply chose their own country over rule by Brussels. Universities have a global horizon, but they should also be grounded in British heritage and culture. Otherwise, the divide between the ‘haves’ and the ’have nots’ of society will deepen.
(Image: Garry Knight)