From where I sit - 'Brexit'? It's cold outside

February 21, 2013

One old-time story of British attitudes to the European Union goes like this. It’s 1955. There is a meeting determining whether to create the European Economic Community. Six continental delegations and a lone Briton are present. The Briton makes for the exit, saying: “Even if you continue meeting, you will not agree. Even if you agree, nothing will result. Even if something results, it will be a disaster.”

The “Brexit” scenario that King’s College London scholar Alison Wolf evoked in Times Higher Education recently seems to be in the same vein (“Quitting Europe would be big, but not a crisis on the home front”, Opinion, 31 January). Leaving, she suggests, would even benefit English universities.

Leaving aside that Wolf is writing from the perspective of public sector management (not of the academics, researchers and students who make universities the hubs of knowledge they are), her piece also ignores the developments since her 1999 book on EU educational convergence and divergence.

The question these days is not how to escape the clutches of a devious Commission, as she suggests: it is how to make cooperation work for the benefit of Europe-wide higher education - and how this can help underpin EU strategies for emerging from the financial crisis.

The intergovernmentalism that Wolf admires has already been seriously tweaked by the main players over the years. In 1971, ministers of education committed to cooperation decided that they could not turn ideas into feasible policy without a bureaucratic process.

On a much more ambitious scale, the European Council launched its growth strategies (the Lisbon Agenda in 2000, the Europe 2020 strategy in 2010) on the basis of the Open Method of Coordination (OMC) to underpin national choice.

Critics regard OMC as a reversion to intergovernmentalism and stasis, dictated by the diplomatic stitch-ups of the “Bigs” - Germany, France and the UK - at the expense of the other member states and the European Parliament. But in the nationally sensitive area of higher education, where binding governance has never been the norm, different forms of OMC have brought the benefits of a predictable process. This in turn has stabilised a policy arena in which there is a voice for the academic membership bodies that operate at the European level, notably the European University Association and the European Students Union. The Council of Europe, with its focus on rights and norms, is also a policy player.

Under OMC, the Commission has had to adapt to being an energiser rather than a political leader. It does an essential job in keeping the show on the road through its technical expertise and funds for development, plus its management of the Bologna/EU overlaps on the “knowledge triangle” of education, research and innovation, and (just as crucial) social fairness.

But ultimately the question that matters right now is whether Wolf is right in saying that exit would be crisis-free for UK universities. The answer is surely only on the narrowest criteria for the most prestigious institutions, and only by discounting uncertainty.

While the rest of Europe, with its many world-class universities, strengthens the cooperative Bologna strategy for mobility and the circulation of ideas, my email correspondence suggests that bright minds are already rejecting the pricey British option and its “Little England” aura. Some of them have taken their academic potential to Spain, Slovenia, France, Finland, Croatia, Luxembourg or the Netherlands instead of Oxbridge. Two of them are Chinese.

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