|Photo: Howard Hotson|
Up and down the UK, academics have spent the past fortnight spinning through cycles of shock, disbelief, terror, outrage and denial in the wake of the country’s vote to leave the European Union. The Brexit debate has exposed deep divisions within the country at large, but it has also united the university community like no other issue in recent times.
The bodies representing universities – including the Russell Group, Universities UK and MillionPlus – were unanimous in their support for Remain. The vice-chancellors of 103 universities published an open letter three days before the vote, urging that remaining in the EU was “necessary for the UK to maintain its position as a highly skilled and a globally competitive knowledge economy”. The rest of the university community, which so often objects to this kind of instrumentalist argument, is for once voicing full-throated agreement. According to Times Higher Education’s own poll, nearly 90 per cent of those working in higher education wanted to stay within the EU. Nearly 70 per cent of UK students also planned to vote “in”, and university alumni strongly support Remain. In all likelihood, the universities are the most uniformly and passionately pro-European constituency in the country.
How, then, to account for this remarkable unanimity? Economic self-interest is always the first explanation invoked in our neoliberal age. The UK is one of the chief beneficiaries of EU research funding. Up to 2013, for instance, it received a larger share of Framework Programme 7 funding (15.1 per cent) than any other country besides Germany, as well as 22 per cent of all funding granted by the European Research Council: double the rate of the UK’s contribution to the EU budget as a whole (11.5 per cent). EU sources account for 10 per cent of the UK’s academic research funding, including large-scale consortia and high-risk, high-gain international research projects for which there are no other funding streams. That’s a powerful and simple argument, of precisely the kind that should work well in a referendum debate. But it didn’t win the debate, and it’s not the whole story. Wales and Cornwall are also huge net beneficiaries of EU funding, but they both opted to leave.
Materials for a richer explanation of Remain’s hold on the university can be found in the deep recesses of history. Simply put, the university, in origin, is not a national institution. In fact, most of Europe’s oldest universities are far older than the nation states in which they are currently located. When the first university was founded (traditional date: 1088), Bologna was a semi-autonomous civic commune near the southern boundary of the Holy Roman Empire. By 1500, a dozen further universities had been founded within the still fragmented Italian peninsula, in independent republics, the Papal States and the kingdom of Naples.
Elsewhere, the situation was similar. The oldest university in modern Spain (Salamanca, 1134) was founded in the kingdom of Léon, which occupied the northwestern corner of the Iberian peninsula, including parts of modern Spain and Portugal. Alcalá (1293) and Santiago (1495) were established within the kingdom of Castille; Barcelona (1450) and Valencia (1499) in the kingdom of Aragon.
The oldest universities in the Czech Republic (Prague, 1348), Austria (Vienna, 1365), Germany (Heidelberg, 1386), Belgium (Leuven, 1425) and Switzerland (Basel, 1460) were all established within territories subject to the Holy Roman Empire, and so were scores more before 1806.
The oldest universities in Scandinavia, Uppsala (1477) and Copenhagen (1479), appeared in a period in which Sweden and Denmark were united in the Kalmar Union. The oldest universities in Europe’s northeastern and southeastern corners – in Estonia (Tartu, 1632), Finland (Turku/Helsinki, 1640) and Croatia (Zagreb, 1669) – were established within Sweden’s Baltic and Austria’s Balkan empires. Scotland’s ancient universities – St Andrews (1413), Glasgow (1451), Aberdeen (1495) and Edinburgh (1582) – were founded long before the formation of the UK in 1707, and may well survive to see its break-up.
Source: Times Higher Education