At a gathering of university heads at the Sorbonne University in Paris last week, I heard one topic come up again and again: the quest to build “European universities”.
The idea of creating “European universities” started life in a speech by French president Emmanuel Macron delivered on the very same campus in 2017. He was rather light on detail – they took up four sentences in a 12,000 word speech on the future of Europe – but since then the European Commission has put flesh on the bones and put €30 million (£25.9 million) behind a pilot.
These will not be new institutions, but rather existing groups of universities that will swap students, integrate their teaching and promote multilingualism. More than 300 universities in 54 consortia have applied to be part of the pilot; the winners should be announced by the end of June.
So what’s not to like?
In his Sorbonne speech, Macron was very clear about their unifying ideological purpose. “It is this collegiate life together that you will experience in Paris, Milan, Berlin or Gdansk. This is what matters, what makes up this European cement, this unbreakable tie that holds Europe together,” he enthused.
Speaking to university bosses last week at the European University Association’s annual conference, Sophia Eriksson Waterschoot, the Commission’s director for youth, education and Erasmus+, said that “European universities” should be a “very important driver of European unity and European identity”.
This made me pause. Is it really appropriate that universities are falling over themselves to help a quasi-state promote its central ideology and identity among the young?
In other contexts, this would seem bizarre or sinister. What if British universities, under a future Jeremy Corbyn government, agreed to train students to recognise their identity as wage labourers under capitalism? Or if Hungarian institutions, on the recommendation of the Orban government, were happy to reinforce students’ identity as patriotic Christians?
Surely a European identity is an unalloyed good, you might counter.
Well, the vast majority of university leaders would probably agree, as would I (with a few caveats).
But large swathes of the European population would not; the question of European versus national identity is far from being a settled one across the continent, and not just in Brexitland. Should universities, which are supposed to serve society in its entirety, really try to mould students so they take Brussels’ side?
To be fair, the university leaders I spoke to are hardly salivating at the prospect of indoctrinating youngsters into the European project. Instead, they are more interested in creating new courses, for example, that combine the teaching specialities of different universities. We have no idea if future graduates of these “European universities” will emerge any more Europhile than normal, or if the label will be anything more than superficial.
And there are, of course, some values almost everyone hopes universities do impart to their students: racial non-discrimination, to take an uncontroversial example. We also want students to draw insights about contemporary politics from the content of their degrees.
Yet we’d recoil if universities institutionally, say, tried to tell students which way to vote. To me, promoting “European unity and European identity” under the auspices of the EU and Macron feels far closer to this than supporting something less contested, such as an anti-racism initiative on campus.
Erasmus + is another example. International student exchange is not controversial. But by limiting it largely to Europe, Erasmus+ explicitly sets out to “provide the space for young people to develop a European identity alongside their national identity”; Jean-Claude Juncker has boasted of one million “Erasmus babies” being born to parents who met on exchange. These may well be laudible goals. But they are deeply contested ones, and the EU is using universities to achieve them.
Right-wingers often complain that universities are places where students are indoctrinated; “left-wing madrassas” as the commentator Toby Young put it. Overall, the evidence for this is pretty weak.
But in the case of these new “European universities”, I wonder if they might have a point.
David Matthews is a Times Higher Education reporter based in Berlin.