Blessings of union

April 30, 2004

EU expansion offers scholars great opportunities and challenges, says George Kolankiewicz

In 1915, in a lecture inaugurating the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, Tom sy Masaryk, the school's joint founder and a future president of Czechoslovakia, spoke of his vision of how, one day, "small nations could reclaim the right of being peaceably inserted into the growing organisation of Europe".

It could be argued that with the entrance of ten new member states on May 1 - the vast majority of whose citizens hail from the states that emerged from the first world war settlement - that vision will take a major step towards being realised.

One of the manifold opportunities that European Union enlargement represents for the people of the new member states will be the chance for students and academics on both "sides" to benefit from the type of exchange that represents the lifeblood of academic life.

At University College London SSEES, we have been better placed than most to appreciate the challenges that the politics of the region have placed on our academic development over the past hundred years.

In its early years, the SSEES suffered from the low importance afforded Slavonic studies in comparison with much larger schools of French and German. Its leaders were reduced to going cap in hand for funding to the governments of Eastern Europe.

After the second world war, the status of Slavonic studies rose as western governments realised the importance in the new world order of understanding the politics and culture of the region.

Finding academics and postgraduate students to fill all the exchange posts for the British Academy and British Council was not always easy. As colleagues said to me, who would want to spend a summer in martial-law Poland rather than in a gite in France? The value of meeting scholars was often to find out what was the real message contained in a monograph so that it could be decoded on return.

These contacts paid dividends when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.

Western scholars were able to build on the ties nurtured during those years, and a whole raft of joint research programmes quickly set in train a normalisation of scholarly collaboration.

This did not mean that there was a rush of resources and students into the region - although the Higher Education Funding Council for England did in 1995-96 inject much-needed funding into Eastern European studies to support a range of new posts.

Nevertheless, more imaginative solutions had to be found. Hefce minority subjects funding looked after the languages (although it is due to be evaluated by next year).

In the social sciences, especially after the SSEES merged with UCL in 1999, growth has been nothing short of spectacular. Peremptory ten-week trips to Budapest and Brno to a get a feel of post-communist societies have been gradually replaced with more structured Socrates placements that add real intellectual value.

The change in fee status for students from the accession countries should increase the numbers coming to the UK. If you wish to stand out in a graduate body at home in a country such as Poland, which has more than doubled its student population since 1989, a degree from a UK university with a proven English-language facility gives an extra sheen to a CV.

The rising number of such visitors to the UKwill also stimulate traffic in the opposite direction. Four-year social sciences courses introduced at the SSEES this year, which include a year abroad, show promising application rates. Staff from the UK will continue research visits that should be more productive as archives open up, research opportunities develop and a new generation of scholars in the East and West join the academic discourse as full partners.

The interest in the region generated by this accession round will not be short-lived. Enlargement will bring surprises for everyone, and the range of questions will grow more complex. The challenge for Eastern European studies will be enormous.

George Kolankiewicz is director of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London.

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