I doubt anybody can seriously argue that UK higher education would have fared better in isolation from the rest of Europe.
Ever since the establishment of the University of Bologna in the 11th century, the success of European higher education has been based on a few shared features, such as international mobility, openness, an academic lingua franca, and combining service to society with a nurturing of curiosity and critical thinking. It has served the continent, and probably even more so the UK, very well. It became more nation-centred only in the 19th century, with the advent of the French and German university systems.
This led to the remarkable diversity of academic models in today’s Europe. Diversity means that in each moment there are some models that are more suited to the current circumstances, and others that are more adequate when circumstances change. The UK has historically profited from developments in the Continent’s universities, usually improving on them; it would be mind-boggling if Darwin’s home country was no longer interested in improving its university system via such natural selection.
Not being part of the European higher education space would inevitably lead to more endogamy, less cooperation, less competition, less internationalisation, and thus to less quality. It is a mirage to believe that UK higher education could prosper by focusing on the English-speaking world. Creativity and innovation require openness and interaction with a broader range of cultures and mindsets.
Cern, the European Space Organisation and the European Molecular Biology Organisation are examples of European cooperation at its best. Scientists from the UK played a major role in ensuring their success, and produced remarkable breakthroughs that could not have happened without the borderless cooperation with their continental and international colleagues, and without access to European scientific equipment.
I have to stretch my Homo sapiens mind to its limits to picture a brighter future for a UK isolated from the Continent. A large percentage of British university staff come from the Continent and one of the reasons for their research’s high quality is that it is internationally collaborative. Some in the UK advocate the Norwegian or Swiss model of cooperation with the EU from outside it. But they should first inform themselves properly before going down that cul-de-sac. If you want to optimally profit from a system, it is better to take part in intelligently shaping it.
Data on European research funding prove that those who say that the UK gives more than it receives are largely incorrect; the UK is extremely successful in securing European competitive funding because it has one of the best research systems anywhere. Yes, one can find higher education and research examples where the UK gives more than it receives; but it is a non sequitur to then conclude that not giving and not receiving would therefore be better. There cannot be any working cooperation in which one partner always receives more than the other.
Universities are essential in shaping our future. There is no great future for either a Europe without the UK or a UK outside Europe. They would have no chance of competing successfully in our quickly developing world. A united European knowledge society would be a major source of wisdom and savoir faire for the whole planet; a split Europe would cut a pathetic figure.
We continental Europeans, who share most British values, ask the UK to concentrate its powers on contributing to a better, more British Europe: not to a less European Britain. It would not be at all British to argue that because this goal of a better Europe would be difficult to achieve it should not be pursued. Any relevant challenge is difficult to tackle, but I am sure UK universities are ready to support their country in following this European road. A better UK can be achieved, but only within a better Europe.
Rolf Tarrach is president of the European University Association.