Continental drift

November 7, 2013

David Willetts, in the recently published pamphlet Robbins Revisited: Bigger and Better Higher Education (Social Market Foundation), makes three references to Europe. That puts him ahead of an Anglocentric commentariat on the Robbins report’s 50th anniversary.

However, the universities and science minister turns out not to be referring to European developments since Robbins, such as the establishment of the European Research Council, the central place higher education now occupies in the European Union’s growth and innovation strategy, or the Bologna Process’ creation of a European Higher Education Area.

Rather, he uses Europe to hold up a mirror to the English system. We are still the fairest of them all! England is recognised as an outlier in Europe in two important respects: its income-contingent loan system, admired by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development; and its higher levels of university autonomy, admired by the European University Association.

In his third reference to Europe, Mr Willetts stokes up a warm glow by recalling the interwar years when Britain had fewer university students than most Western European countries: “The intellectual stagnation this could have caused was offset by the migration of academics and thinkers, many of them Jewish, from Nazi Germany.”

In 2013, British universities are still, fortunately, welcoming at least some academic refugees. What Mr Willetts seems to ignore is that they would be stagnating intellectually if they did not also have thousands of European and overseas postgraduates and academics contributing to research and teaching, and a goodly sprinkle of European and other foreign thinkers, too. Globalisation and the knowledge economy have heightened the need for constant intellectual and scientific interchange.

It must be the case that many of the Europeans in British universities are here because European collaboration exists. These continental Europeans hold some of the prestigious ERC grants – the Marie Curie and Jean Monnet awards, or those of Erasmus Mundus. Many, in my experience, have crossed borders earlier in their careers. They have taken part in the EU mobility programme Erasmus, or have been involved in trans-border collaborations and exchanges set up between academics and institutions.

The taken-for-granted nature of academic mobility within the European sphere is one of the major changes in the university world since Robbins was published. It has been largely brought about by backing from the EU and the Bologna Process for structured education cooperation and the opening-up of opportunities.

While the UK has contributed to that cooperation, it should also recognise how much its higher education system has benefited.

I can understand why Robbins and his colleagues did not address Europe as an issue in 1963. When they looked at higher education in other countries, the systems of the Cold War antagonists were then of greater strategic interest (and Charles de Gaulle had just vetoed Britain’s request to join the European Economic Community). However, today it seems perverse to ignore the European element in our higher education system. Oh dear, time to bring out a Jean Monnet quote again, the one in which the “father of Europe” declared: “Britain can’t grasp an idea. Britain is supremely good at grasping a fact.”

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