Say it loud – I’m European and I’m proud

Academics need to stand up for Europe and celebrate all the positives in higher education cooperation, argues Anne Corbett

May 14, 2015

Source: Illustration Sausage

My first serious involvement in Europe as a key political issue came in the late 1980s in Paris. Eking out a professional life as a freelance journalist and a teacher on an international relations course at the Sorbonne, I made the move from membership of the Anglo-American Press Association of Paris to the Foreign Press Association or, as the French know it, l’Association de la Presse Etrangère. Walter Schwarz, a great Guardian foreign correspondent, had shown the way. “The foreign press is so much more fun,” he said. And he was right.

The Anglo-American association of my day was pompous and rich, and essentially a diplomatic venue. The correspondents of The New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, The Washington Post and The Times were demigods. In contrast, the Association de la Presse Etrangère was a hotbed of camaraderie and plots in which there were opportunities for all to make an impact from day one.

In the APES, as my family rudely called the association, the leading schemers were an Italian who’d grown up on the extreme Left busy justifying his transfer to a Berlusconi paper; a Lebanese, whose magnificent apartment near the Arc de Triomphe suggested that his journalism was a front for another life; and a cultured Russian, who lived in semi-exile, appreciated by his government as eyes and ears on foreign territory, but unreliable for transfer to the domestic press.

They were the macho boys. I suffered at their hands when I stood for election against them. My belief in myself as an honest broker caused hilarity: one more sign of unquenchable British arrogance. I now say plus ça change as I watch David Cameron preaching to his European Union colleagues.

At least I learned from my mistake. The question was how to achieve results in an association where, although we were linked by profession and an ability to manage in French, we had different interests and status, and we came from some very different political and cultural traditions. I see the answer in the fact that we were a “flat” organisation, not a hierarchy. The experience was a lesson for me in the cross-cultural possibilities of Europe.

Today, with a PhD on European policy processes and a research interest in the European politics of higher education, it strikes me as a profound political and scholarly mistake not to make the diverse ways in which Europe acts more intelligible, and more interesting, to the general public. You would never guess from the election manifestos that “staying in Europe” was important for anything much other than business and the security of UK jobs.

But you also have to look hard in the EU academic literature for sustained work on Europeanisation outside the areas of the economy, foreign policy, internal security and borders. It is left to a small group scattered across Europe and Asia to undertake serious research on the Europeanisation of higher education, let alone education in general. The classic textbook from Oxford University Press, Policy-Making in the European Union, which first appeared in 1977, has run to seven editions since without ever including a chapter on the EU and education policy.

Yet education is a foundation stone for making societies cohesive in Europe, as it is elsewhere. The 1950s creators of the European Communities knew this. They made the case for the young sharing some higher education experience as part of sustaining a European identity, in which further war in Europe would become unthinkable. Now, with the rise of Euroscepticism and the potential for political fragmentation of Europe if there is a “Grexit” or a “Brexit”, there is more than ever a case for looking at the impact of Europe on higher education in terms of its potential for enriching lives.

The Erasmus programme, which dates from 1987, has given a substantial push to mobility and inter-institutional cooperation. The Maastricht Treaty of 1992 has reassured national governments that EU involvement would not overturn national systems.

In the past decade, the Bologna Process has become a byword in global higher education circles for the development of regional cohesion in higher education. It is an example of what the political scientist Richard Rose calls Europe’s historical pragmatism in finding political solutions. Bologna is a plausibly transnational umbrella under which 48 varied national systems wish to shelter, helped by the EU, the Council of Europe and vigorous stakeholder associations.

I recently flew to Singapore and, for the first few of the endless hours, found myself glued to the flight tracker screen. As the names of cities flashed up, I was on a research high. I could place these cities in terms of key universities, key actors and key Bologna meetings. As the plane passed over Bologna Europe and beyond the Caspian Sea, I also counted up the historical, political and religious dividing lines that have been reduced, if not erased, by higher education cooperation. Those are things to celebrate as new challenges appear.

The Bologna Process now shows up the gaps in ambition and possibilities between those in the vanguard and the rest. We are seeing coalitions of the willing appearing. Several national higher education systems are experimenting with the idea that there should be automatic recognition of degrees within an “island of trust”. Coalitions of the willing are possibly the only terms viable in democratic and political terms in some policy sectors. But the rules need to be clear, the funding fair.

My eyes are in no way shut to Europe’s downside, most topically the inability of EU leaders to face up to the moral as well as practical dilemmas of the African and Syrian refugees crossing the Mediterranean or drowning, or the political problems the EU and Greece face.

But I still think that it is time for me personally to modify the line Umberto Eco throws out in interviews: “In Europe I feel Italian, in the US I feel European”. I am happy to be European. I can’t be the only person in the UK higher education world who feels this way. Why aren’t we hearing more from a higher education sector in which many academics and students will have experienced the joys and pleasures, as well as the challenges, that the Europeanising of higher education brings?

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