Why telling the story of HE cooperation in Europe matters

I don’t believe in the adage that history repeats itself. That can provide dangerous tools in an era of fake news, and, if Europe is the topic, there is always the potential to stoke UK-EU Brexit tension.

But I do believe that it can be intellectually rewarding to draw on historical parallels of policy process to illuminate current policy. With two provisos: That you have defined precisely what it is that you are trying to compare and that you get your facts right.

My own research interests have led me most recently to look at universities in the Cold War, and whether the ideological divisions between the governments of East and West marked an equally binary division between the universities of the two blocs. And if so, what are the lessons?

I have also worked on the history of European engagement with universities. So my attention was caught by a recent University World News article which began with the assertion that higher education became central to the European project in 1948.

My immediate response was the traditional academic counter-question: ‘It depends what you mean by ‘central’.’

Was the significant historical moment the floating of the idea that Europe should have a policy engagement in higher education? Was it the moment higher education got a place on the policy agenda of governments in the European Economic Community (EEC), predecessor of the European Union?

Or was it the first set of decisions in which ministers committed to supporting education in general, drawing on the services of the European Commission? Or was the decisive moment the much more recent Bologna Declaration of 1999?

Depending where your focus is, the answers are different.

A supranational university vs a voluntary federation

Here is my selection of potentially ‘central’ events.

1948 launched a European brainstorming exercise. The Congress of Europe, taking place in the Hague, brought together politicians and intellectuals across Western Europe. Released from war engagement and looking to a better future, those attending came up with ideas in almost every policy domain.

On higher education, the idea of a supranational university for Europe, was put forward by a socialist group. It was rejected by those who had suffered directly at the hands of the authoritarian regimes of the Nazis and the fascists. University representatives opposed any form of supranationalism.

A voluntary federation of European universities was put forward by the delegations of university rectors.

• In 1955 two events took place which enabled the two currents of thought to have a place on governmental agendas.

One was a meeting at Messina of the foreign ministers of the six members of the European Coal and Steel Community to discuss the project of a European Economic Community. This was the meeting that led eventually to the Treaty of Rome (EEC) 1957.

It also included a surprise proposal for a supranational university put forward by the Germans. It found its way into the parallel Treaty of Rome for atomic energy (Treaty of Rome EAEC, 1957) in more ambiguous terms to establish ‘an institution of university status’, with a duty placed on the newly established European Commission to make a legislative proposal.

Also taking place that year was the first formal meeting of rectors from universities across western Europe masterminded by a Cold War organisation, the Western European Union.

This was the first step towards forming the Standing Conference of Rectors and Vice- Chancellors of the European Universities, known by its French acronym as the CRE (predecessor of the powerful European University Association).

1963 saw a meeting of the heads of state and government in Bonn which put an end to the project of a supranational European University.

The Italians began lobbying for a less ambitious version of the European University (the state had already allocated it a beautiful property).

University rectors, who had by then formed the CRE to rally university opinion, claimed victory.

The European University Institute

1971 saw political approval for two proposals on higher education issues.

Ministers, acting on the basis of intergovernmental cooperation, gave formal approval to the creation of a postgraduate institution, focused on the humanities, based in Florence, Italy, and to be known as the European University Institute (EUI). The EUI was given legal status by a convention of 1972 and the institute opened in 1976.

Minutes later, as the EEC Six ministers, they approved the strategy of using EEC institutions under intergovernmental rules. Shaken by the student movement of 1968 and frustrated by lack of Council of Europe support, they were anxious to exploit the more effective service of the European Commission.

Other key dates to consider as central are:

1987: The Erasmus programme became the first Community (EEC) legislation incorporating education in the community budget and pointed to future initiatives.

1992: The Treaty of Maastricht, which included the first reference to education in a Community treaty. It set the boundaries for EU action, recognising education as a national matter.

1998: The Sorbonne Declaration, a politically weighty call by four ministers responsible for higher education for the creation of a European Higher Education Area. The notion had already appeared in European Commission documents. This put the idea on the policy agendas of the EU and national governments.

1999: The Bologna Declaration, an intergovernmental agreement signed by 29 EU ministers responsible for higher education from EU member states and candidates for EU membership. This gave the CRE, the future European University Association, and later the European Commission, students and other stakeholders a ‘central’ policy role and laid the groundwork for the European Higher Education Area or EHEA.

My historical research into different episodes of higher education policy in Europe has unearthed a share of heroes and villains. That all makes for good stories. But the outcomes are unique to their times.

What endures is what so many people consider boring: the process and the institutional rules to which actors sign up in the belief that it will deliver the goal of politics: An answer to who gets what, without the use of force.

Dr Anne Corbett is a senior associate of LSE Consulting. She is the author of Universities and the Europe of Knowledge: Ideas, institutions and policy entrepreneurship in European Union higher education policy, 1955-2005. Palgrave, 2005.