Channel to wider horizons

June 12, 1998

When I graduated from University College London in 1959, virtually the only non-British students I had met were from the Commonwealth and North America, and it was mostly to the latter that we went for our overseas masters degrees. There we learned about semesters, credits, wonderful libraries, campuses and the culinary delights of a BLT on toast.

Now I teach many North American and Commonwealth students at Kent but, alas, few from Africa. While overseas students form 10 per cent of our student body, there is also a further 14 per cent from the European Union. In 1959 few ventured across the Channel, especially from these islands, unless they were linguists or intrepid "arty" types. Today the Channel is no longer a boundary, and universities are part of the integration process in the Western European peninsula.

European integration, especially in the EU, is a fourfold process of building up, building down, building beyond and building across. We are building up towards what the European Commission itself calls the joint management of pooled sovereignty. There is no room for the "F" (federal) word here, since we are not giving our sovereignty to anybody else, but pooling it and operating a system of joint management through a consociation of political and bureaucratic elites. Oddly enough, we are doing it in a very British way, without a constitution, but relying on a number of important treaties, such as those of Rome, the Single Act and Maastricht. We are not losing something, but merely sharing it so we can better broach problems or take advantages of opportunities, and we can do that either through consensus or by a simple majority.

The extent to which we are building down is, however, often ignored. This is masked by the idea of subsidiarity - that is, fulfilling functions at the lowest appropriate level, conceived to be that of state governments. Yet the process has gone far beyond that, with the growth of regions on an historical, imagined, bureaucratic or functional basis. All the large countries in the EU now have strong regions with their own tax- raising and spending powers, the ability to negotiate with Brussels and with one another, and, indeed, the capacity to make agreements beyond the confines of the EU. Even France, the traditional highly centralised state, has now joined Germany, Italy and Spain in this process, and Britain is at last joining the European trend as new Labour pushes devolution in the United Kingdom. Moreover, regions form alliances within the EU, such as that between Catalonia, Rhone-Alpes, Baden-Wurttemberg and Lombardy. Some regions overlap the EU borders, such as the region centred on Basle and incorporating parts of Switzerland, Germany and France.

The third element in the process is building beyond the confines of the EU, through either enlargement or association agreements with our near neighbours, and the development of institutionalised ties with other regions of the world. For example, Britain's presidency has seen EU meetings with the Asia countries and, most recently, with the United States. The second half of the 20th century has seen Western Europe attempting to put its own house in order. Now that that has largely been accomplished, the EU will doubtless play a more coherent and effective role in the wider world.

However, it is in building across that we in the academic world have our strongest role to play. From Ashford International Station it is one hour to London and one hour to Lille. My department in Kent also teaches its masters degrees in our London Centre of International Relations; and in Lille this academic year, four of us from the department have been teaching at the Institut d'etudes Politiques. A couple of weeks ago, two of us were giving oral examinations to 40 students at Lille, who included some British Erasmus students, in French rather self-consciously in the latter case. The IEP has no great resources in international relations teaching, and perhaps we can strengthen our provision in French government with movement in the opposite direction.

Another 40 minutes down the line and we are in Brussels with a very large community that uses English as a working language, as well as a strong local community that values British-style education, if the thousands of inquiries to the British Council office are any gauge. Several others in my department already had good professional ties with colleagues at the two free universities in Brussels and so in association with them we have decided to teach our masters degrees in Brussels, in English, with staff from Kent, locally based UKC staff and colleagues from the two Brussels institutions. Our boundaries have changed and our horizons have widened - and perhaps Eurostar will eventually get into profit.

The academic benefits of all of this are easy to see - ideas, a new literature, new conceptual frameworks and a strong perception of what you do well and others do better (and worse). Linguistic skills are learned. I failed French A level, but picked it up doing my PhD in Geneva. If you want to, you can, even on the basis of the sort of language teaching we got at school in the 1950s. But there are two other things you get that are important.

The experience of studying abroad increases the likelihood of students getting a job in an increasingly transnational world. They know how to live and operate in another culture, and with linguistic skills, they can work better there. But that also goes for students coming to this country, and they, increasingly, are able to compete on more than equal terms. Not only do they have a familiarity with our ways and language, but they can also work in two or more other languages, including their own.

If British students are to compete in London they will have to match these language skills and cultural flexibility. Student exchanges are about jobs, not only for us abroad, but also about holding them at home.

The other great advantage, in a single word, is peace. As I speed through Flanders Fields where my grandfather spent four bloody years in the trenches, I know that there is a better way. My home turf now is from London to Brussels. For my colleagues and our students the boundaries have changed and our horizons are wider.

A. J. R. Groom is professor of international relations and head of department of politics and international relations at the University of Kent at Canterbury. The London Centre of International Relations and the Brussels School of International Studies, which opened this week, are part of the department.

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