What kind of debate on EU membership should we have at a university? Professor Jan Kubik, Director of the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies, replies to Anand Menon who has criticised Universities UK for taking sides against a UK exit from the EU. Kubik calls for contestation, but also for broadening the debate beyond narrow economic concerns. Universities, above all, he argues, should be places where such (critical) consideration of material interests is counterbalanced by a thoughtful examination of ideals.
Universities UK, an organisation created by the leaders of British universities, has taken a strong stance against Brexit. Professor Menon is right in worrying that ‘by taking such a clear stand on such a hotly debated political issue, universities may make it harder for their staff to foster precisely those sorts of debates that universities are meant to encourage‘. Such a ‘clear stand’, taken de facto by the top academic brass (at least so far), may stifle the debate, as ‘average’ academics will fear arguing against their ‘bosses’.
Menon then analyses briefly an argument for and against Brexit, from the point of view of British universities’ interests. The argument, important though it is, focuses exclusively on the material components. At the moment, EU research funding is very beneficial for British Universities (still regarded as the best in Europe), but – Menon argues – there may be ways to reconfigure this financing after the exit, without too much loss.
I find this argument too narrow. For me the EU has never been simply about the increasingly tight economic cooperation and progressively integrated political organisation; it encompasses the reconfiguration of European culture. The creation of the EU inserted into the repertoire of Europe’s self-understandings a powerful note of hope and revitalisation. Hope that the continent notoriously torn apart by wars and conquests can construct collectively peace and coexistence – revitalisation in the reimagining and changing of centuries of tradition – incorporating the ‘what could be’ into the ‘what has always been’. To realise this programme of hope a set of economic and political tools has been devised. It has many faults and has produced myriads of undesired unintended consequences. But overall the realisation of this programme of hope has proven to be extraordinarily successful, though – obviously – has not produced an uninterrupted string of successes nor a perfect union.
At a time of crisis, it is good to have a vigorous debate. The question is what kind of debate we should have, at a university? Should it be merely or predominantly about searching for rational solutions and carefully calculated material benefits of this or that course of action (for example: to exit or not to exit to improve our economic situation). For me, there is a danger in looking at the issue exclusively in economic terms. We may forget that institutions designed to organise our collective existence, including our economic life, enter our minds, permeate our souls, and define our cultures. A radical institutional change is never without cost in these three dimensions. In this case I worry that Brexit will suggest a double capitulation: short and long-term. Short-term, such capitulation will be ill-timed. In the midst of the arguably most severe series of crises in the EU’s history, derailing the process founded on the bold vision of hope is playing with fire. In human history, the power of doubt has too often proven to be stronger than the power of hope.
Long term it may be the beginning of the end of the project. Perhaps, the university is not the place where this deconstruction should begin. But, the university is the place where a debate must happen (I concur with Professor Menon) and the ideas for reconstruction should be formulated. So, what to do? Debate, but broaden the debate’s agenda beyond the economic concerns, is my suggestion.
All of this sounds idealistic. But in this debate I want to argue that universities should be bastions of idealism, spaces where (critical) consideration of material interests is always counterbalanced by a thoughtful, thus critical examination of ideals. For me, the ideals that need to be examined have proven to be realisable and their implementation has produced extremely beneficial results. Brexit will signify that a powerful European country has decided to give up hope of perfecting the project built on these ideals, at a time when the project itself and the ideals it stands on are challenged with intensifying ferocity.
Professor Jan Kubik is Director of the School of Slavonic & East European Studies at UCL.
Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.