Moves to prove impact have led to a rise in campaign groups in support of public universities and the social sciences across the UK and Europe. Anne Corbett finds a worrying level of insularity in the UK’s organisations and argues that that there is space for a Campaign for European Universities to strengthen the impact of these groups.

This post was originally published on Europp – European Politics and Policy.

It is the London bus story all over again. You don’t see one for ages, then three come along. Recent weeks have produced three documents which tell us a great deal about the attitudes of universities to Europe and why ‘Europe’ in some form wants them to be more fully engaged.

Craig Calhoun, well known for wide-ranging work on big questions of the social sciences (and, of course, LSE’s new director), chose at least five alluring words for the title of his inaugural lecture: Knowledge Matters: the public mission of research universities. The content on the strategic possibilities for a research intensive institution like LSE was alluring too, especially given its commitment to public policy and high level social sciences. But for a Europeanist it was surprising that his scenario for a leading European university makes no mention of the Europe dimension. Yet the Bologna Process is out there gradually constructing a European Area of Higher Education, and the EU research strategy and ‘knowledge triangle’ of Europe2020 has big implications for institutions. The Calhoun bus however appears to be heading direct to the stop labelled ‘Global’.

Then there is the recently launched Campaign for the Defence of British Universities (CDBU). It has been mocked in blogs for its pride in claiming its Council includes 16 peers. And blogging registrars complain the CDBU treats them as a servant class and forgets that the 21st century has arrived. Despite these critiques, the CDBU’s strength is that it has been created essentially by public intellectuals and not the usual suspects of organised higher education, which gives it immediate political weight. More fundamentally, the founders are right to proclaim that there has been a vacuum where there should be an arena, for working out how the essential values of the university can be maintained when the political rhetoric is so geared to the economic values of efficiency and productivity.

The EEU report needs further study and evaluation. But in terms of university values, the main concern here is whether the EEU’s efforts are at the antipodes of CDBU concerns, as indicated in Figure 1. It is unequivocally instrumentalising the economic contribution of universities and arguing for the reforms of organisation and funding which would enable universities to be more effective in contributing to research and innovation. Yet it shows some understanding of how successful universities work in taking a strong stand against playing national political games with universities.

From a political science perspective I’d say that the differences between these three rather different contributions might be less important than the fact that universities are at the centre of their concerns. The present crisis, with economies in disarray, offers opportunities to make it clear why universities are important to European life.

Anne Corbett has recently had published ‘Principles, problems, politics: what does the historical record of EU cooperation in higher education tell the EHEA generation?’ In: Curaj, Adrian and Scott, Peter and Vlasceanu, Lazăr and Wilson, Lesley, (eds.) European Higher Education at the Crossroads: Between the Bologna process and national reforms. Springer, Dordrecht.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Sciences blog, nor of the London School of Economics.

About the author:

Anne Corbett – LSE European Institute
Dr Anne Corbett is a Visiting Fellow in the European Institute of the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is the author of Universities and the Europe of Knowledge: Ideas, Institutions and Policy Entrepreneurship in European Union Higher Education, 1955-2005, Basingstoke, Palgrave (2005); and a former journalist.


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