EU referendum: universities’ values will remain, whatever the outcome

Martin McQuillan and Shahidha Bari consider the Brexit debate and the higher education sector’s role in it

June 23, 2016
Nick Shepherd illustration (23 June 2016)
Source: Nick Shepherd

The UK was not always so hostile to international scholars as it has been during the Brexit build-up, says Martin McQuillan

It is clear that many of the “out” votes cast in the UK’s European Union referendum derive from fears about immigration. The pro-Brexit camp and its supporters in the press have harped on the issue incessantly, castigating the government for failing to live up to its pledge to reduce migration significantly.

But it is not that the government hasn’t tried to do its worst. In recent months, there have been significant examples of the UK’s newfound inhospitality to international scholars and students, for instance. Prominent among them was the case of Paul Hamilton, a postdoctoral fellow imprisoned in a detention centre for 10 days after a failed application to remain in the country.

Then there was the much bigger story of the Home Office’s student deportation programme, which has seen 50,000 students wrongfully expelled from the country on the basis of their supposedly fraudulent English language scores.

After a damning immigration tribunal verdict in March, the deportations have been halted, and the Home Affairs Select Committee has announced that it will hold an inquiry into the affair.

The UK was not always so hostile to overseas scholars. The story begins in Nazi Germany in April 1933, when hundreds of Jewish professors were removed from their positions. In response, William Beveridge, then director of the London School of Economics, teamed up with Lionel Robbins (future author of the 1963 report on university expansion) to found the Academic Assistance Committee.

The committee’s president was the physicist Ernest Rutherford, and the signatories of its inaugural declaration included the economist John Maynard Keynes, the physiologist J. S. Haldane, the Classics scholar and poet A. E. Housman and the historian G. M. Trevelyan, as well as the director of the British Museum and the president of the Royal Society.

It might be easy now to declare such action an obvious thing to do, but in the context of the UK’s muddled response to Hitler and the economic upheaval and incipient anti-Semitism of the 1930s, it was actually a bold gesture by academics who, although eminent, had much to lose.

A relief fund was established and a campaign started that resulted in the newly exiled Albert Einstein addressing a crowd of 10,000 at the Albert Hall. When the expulsions continued and spread across Nazi-influenced Europe, the AAC reformed itself into the Society for Protection of Science and Learning. The name change reflected a tilt in the organisation’s emphasis from assisting individuals to defending academic freedom itself.

Of the thousands helped by the organisation’s actions, 16 went on to be awarded Nobel prizes, 18 were knighted and more than 100 were elected fellows of the British Academy or Royal Society. They included the Paralympics-founding neurologist Ludwig Guttmann, quantum physicist Max Born, biochemist Max Perutz, philosopher Karl Popper, art historian Ernst Gombrich and architectural critic Nikolaus Pevsner.

The AAC was also responsible for the transfer of the entire Warburg Institute and library, rescued from Nazi book burning by Samuel Courtauld. The discipline of art history in the UK would be unthinkable without this migration of talent and ideas. The Weiner library, now a major site for the study of racism, was also transferred to London in 1939.

Other talented individuals arrived without the assistance of the AAC. The historian Eric Hobsbawm came to the UK as what we would now call “an unaccompanied minor”, while Sigmund Freud found refuge in his final years in North London.

In the post-war era, the SPSL went on to assist academics at risk in Eastern Europe, Chile, Argentina and South Africa. Known since 2014 as the Council for At-Risk Academics (Cara), it is funded by subscriptions and donations.

These are usually from UK vice-chancellors’ offices, as well as individual departments with balance sheets capable of supporting temporary fellows. Cara’s work is now directed towards Iraq, Syria and the Middle East where, once again, academics are fleeing a murderous, anti-intellectual regime: that of Islamic State. Some will say that the Home Office’s student deportation programme is not comparable to that of Cara, assisting academic refugees from oppressive regimes. They would be correct. The former is a shameful episode in which the UK government played fast and loose with the rule of law to the detriment of students, universities and the UK’s reputation abroad. The latter is an example of why our universities and academics are prized around the world for their commitment to academic freedom and for the British value of courage in the face of those who threaten what Beveridge, who went on to write the report that paved the way for the post-war establishment of the welfare state, called “free learning”.

In our own troubled times, it is neither irresponsible nor maverick to insist on the necessity of those principles, or to expect our own government to respect them.

Martin McQuillan is pro vice-chancellor for research and innovation at Kingston University. You can donate to Cara at

The Leave campaign hasn’t so much been for hearts and minds as entirely against minds altogether, says Shahidha Bari

This week I discovered a new word. A “backronym” slams together “backwards” and “acronym” in an ugly pile-up, and we have Meredith G. Williams of Potomac, Maryland, to thank for it. She submitted the word to a neologism competition run by The Washington Post in 1983. It’s the “same as an acronym, except that the words were chosen to fit the letters” she explained – triumphantly, one imagines – while the rest of the universe rolled its eyes.

I discovered it while idly looking up the history of the Erasmus student exchange scheme. Erasmus stands for the European Region Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students: a backronym obviously devised with Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam in mind: the Renaissance humanist, Catholic priest and thinker of a benevolent universality.

This is a rather nice touch since the studious Erasmus travelled widely across Europe in the name of learning, to Leuven, Paris and Basel, even landing in Cambridge (where he particularly despised the ale and the weather).

Even though participation in the Erasmus programme is not tied to membership of the European Union, it cropped up frequently in the run-up to the EU referendum, cited by the Remain campaign as a resonant example of the merits of the great European project. Students study or undertake an internship for at least three months in another European country, which counts towards their degree. For the universities involved, the programme demands that we formally acknowledge the value of these overseas experiences.

Erasmus of Rotterdam, who graduated as a doctor of divinity from the University of Turin and bequeathed his fortune to the University of Basel, seems to have been unimpressed by narrow patriotic impulses, preferring instead “to treat men and things as though we held this world the common fatherland of all”. The Erasmus project is predicated on dreams of pan-European identity but, in its newest forms, it seems also to seek, through academic scholarship, a broader cooperation between the EU and the rest of the world.

On the relentlessly enthusiastic Erasmus Project web page there has been no hint of the gathering Brexit storm. Instead, it trumpets “cross-border cooperation” and boasts of its 927 partner institutions in 37 countries. A colourful stream of European flags wink along the top of the screen, with the Union flag ominously tacked on at the end, clearly threatening to flutter away.

Arguments about the value of the Erasmus programme are just one of the small ways in which universities have tried to throw a punch in the Leave v Remain brawl. Most of us, by now, are familiar with the general lines of argument pushed by universities and academics: withdrawal from the EU could impact on student recruitment and endanger collaborative funding models. It would signal an insularity running strangely counter to the increasingly global research landscape.

But the academy also has a more general stake in the referendum debate. The Leave campaign hasn’t so much been for hearts and minds as entirely against minds altogether, with an exasperated Michael Gove at the helm lobbing slingshots.

“People in this country have had enough of experts,” he declared, knowingly, a few weeks ago. A recent viral Facebook post tallied up a roster of declared supporters for the two referendum campaigns, listing Stephen Hawking, Sir David Attenborough and Barack Obama on one side, and Keith Chegwin and David Icke on the other.

I fervently hope that Gove is wrong. Amid the maelstrom of misinformation, the avalanche of dodgy statistics and the din of general slander, I have clung to the bookish types, with decades of research and analysis behind them and no media training, who have patiently piped up with clarity, authority and expertise. A ballot demands discernment, measured assessment and the exercise of judgement.

Here, I think not so much of Erasmus of Rotterdam as of Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher whose notion of a federation of free states, set out in his essay on “Perpetual Peace”, is frequently taken as a blueprint for the EU, but who also wrote thoughtfully about judgement: how human beings collectively discern and assess. I’ve thought of him often this year, watching the refugee crisis unfold on the fringes of Europe: “Originally, no one had more right than another to a particular part of the Earth,” he wrote. And I am reminded that, whatever the outcome of the referendum, and whatever happens subsequently, the task of the university – its patient and open cultivation of judgement – remains.

Shahidha Bari is lecturer in Romanticism at Queen Mary University of London.

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