From Where I Sit - Personal married to the political

September 27, 2012

Political scientists are often sniffy about the role of the individual in politics and policymaking. But time and again, in studying what happens behind the scenes in European higher education policymaking, I find that individuals who come to the fore have knowledge, authority and the luck of being in the right place at the right time - just as the textbooks say. Crucially, however, their European engagement is underpinned by deep personal experience.

Ladislav Cerych is a case in point. Dr Cerych, who died last month at the age of 86, was a pioneer of comparative policy analysis of higher education at a cross-national level. As one of an informal group of international scholars, he made important contributions over 40 years to European thinking on higher education diversity.

Dr Cerych was known for his work on higher education at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in the 1960s and, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, as one of the European Union's and the OECD's key higher education links with Czechoslovakia. His unique mark, in my view, was made in the period 1975-90 in a small research institute (financed by the European Cultural Foundation) in Paris known as EIESP (the European Institute of Education and Social Policy) or IEEPS (its French acronym). There he initiated the work that provided crucial data for the Erasmus programme in 1987.

It was also from the institute that he took a lucid look at how to assess the expansion of higher education from the 1960s to the 1980s as it evolved from an elite to a mass experience. A 1986 book on the implementation of higher education reforms in Europe, written with Paul Sabatier, had the telling title Great Expectations and Mixed Performance. Dr Cerych also fuelled critical thinking by renovating the European Journal of Education, now a "must-read" for researchers in its field.

In his own words, he was not a militantly political European. His major contribution to policy analysis arose out of an evolving commitment to the cause of European cultural unity.

Born in 1925, Dr Cerych lived through the Nazi occupation and control of Czechoslovakia in 1939-45 and also the Communist coup of 1948. His wealthy family lost its property. But the main issue for him was how society escapes two evils: a society in which ethnic nationalism becomes the supreme value, as it did with the Nazis and as it is in some of today's fringe groups; and a society that shuts its frontiers to ideas as well as people, as the Stalinists did.

He was looking to Europe - then Western Europe - not for what it would do economically or even for an end to war in our time. His Europe was the Europe of civil society, underpinned by democracy and human rights.

His belief in a European bulwark was honed by two institutions - he called them his seedbeds. One was the College of Europe in Bruges, which he joined as part of its first student intake in 1950 after a year among refugees from behind the Iron Curtain. There was also Radio Free Europe, where he spent a year in 1952-53 as a journalist and where he met the political leaders of a would-be united Europe. The College of Europe then made him a research director to build on his knowledge.

In the latter years of his career, he worked in Prague setting up a pedagogical unit at Charles University and supporting the EU Tempus and Phare programmes of university cooperation and exchange. He also played a leading role in OECD inquiries. In the completion of a circle, he and his brother gave the family villa, recovered after 1989, to a foundation devoted to civil liberties.

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