The vice-chancellor of St Mary’s University, Twickenham has said that the UK has to be very careful not to “retreat into our communities again” in the wake of Brexit.
Francis Campbell, who previously served as former UK prime minister Tony Blair’s private secretary for foreign affairs, as well as the UK ambassador to the Holy See, said it was important for the country, especially universities, to maintain “constant openness”.
Mr Campbell added that the combined effects of being a student in Belfast during the Troubles in Northern Ireland and subsequently doing a master’s degree in European integration at KU Leuven gave him an opportunity to reflect on the positive aspects of being part of Europe, something he says he “benefited so much from”.
“I’ve seen the very powerful, positive effect of Europe in giving the umbrella to the [Northern Ireland] peace process and removing a border,” he said. “My [native] home is very close to that border, my family the other side of that border, so this is very real."
He said his decision to go to Belgium and study European integration was "not ad hoc" and followed his experiences as an undergraduate at Queen's University Belfast.
"I was an active member in the Social Democratic and Labour Party. And during my university days, the party leader at that time, John Hume, took that great leap, inspired by the European reconciliation between France and Germany, to reach out to Sinn Féin. That was the start of the peace process."
On Brexit, he said he accepted that a decision to leave had been made by the whole UK, but warned that "we have to be very careful – especially in the part of the country I’m from – that we don’t retreat into our communities again".
“Whether we’re in the EU or not, we’re still European, and that’s vitally important."
Mr Campbell was speaking to Times Higher Education ahead of the launch of St Mary’s 10-year plan in which “community features very strongly”.
He said that St Mary's status as a faith institution could be a unifying feature that made it attractive to students the world over because society was at a moment where “faith is not less relevant but more relevant”, and the dialogue between “faith and the more secular, humanist tradition is vital”.
“We’re one of 130-odd UK universities and one of 2,000-odd Catholic universities in the world, and it’s important for us to be able to have our doors open to that community [of students from a faith background]. It's a comparative advantage and a USP that international students would find attractive.”
Under the new strategy, St Mary’s is looking to boost its proportion of non-UK students to 25 per cent by 2025. It currently has about 5 per cent non-UK students.
However, Mr Campbell stressed that this plan was not about boosting income.
“There’s not a huge discrepancy between the fees we charge domestic and international students, it’s back to the international roots of the university, back to the fact that we see universities as things that transcend regional, national, cultural borders,” he said.
After the interview for this article, Mr Campbell spoke to us on camera