Amelia Hadfield / Nov 2019
Twenty years ago, British universities generally comprised faculties. Faculties housed schools and departments. The usual division was between hard and social sciences, humanities, specialities like law, medicine, pharmacy etc. On occasion, you’d get a ‘centre for something’. Or an institute, grafted onto a department, or a hub spliced onto the university itself. Today, the faculty split remains the same – engineers on one side of the campus, lawyers on the other, political scientists in the middle. But the role of centres, institutes and hubs, has vastly increased.
In terms of promoting scholarship, academic centres are a double-edged sword. The benefit is a forum that can pull together expertise in a range of areas from across whole faculties. Genuine inter-disicplinarity ought to inform relevant outputs and ensure regular events. The risks are over-stretch: adding too many themes for staff to tackle, being at the mercy of fast-paced events, obscure outputs that aren’t of genuine interest to the university community. Institutes and Centres dedicated to enhancing research and debate on Britain and Europe are especially vulnerable. Some are enormous hubs, pulling in a range of impressive funding but unable to make a genuine impact on the community in which they’re actually based. Others are smaller and nimbler, but more prone to organising events rather than releasing regular research. Even the topic itself - European integration, the future of the EU, Brexit Britain’s role in future Europe – is riddled with existential angst at best and at worst, profound worries about staff retention, research funding and viable outputs.
Still – who doesn’t enjoy a challenge? Having worked since 2003 at universities where there was always some institute or centre on Europe or ‘British-EU’ relations, it seems natural to continue to develop - or in the last two instances – build such edifices afresh. At Canterbury Christ Church in Kent, the Centre for European Studies (CEFEUS) founded in 2015 was the recipient of genuine inhouse support and external EU and UK funding, allowing it to develop a robust mantra of ‘teaching, training, outreach’. Having moved to the University of Surrey in 2019, with its impressive range of inhouse expertise on European and British domestic and foreign policy issues, setting up the Centre for Britain on Europe (CBE) on its own high-quality foundations made perfect sense.
Of course, you can’t control timing. The warning that ‘events, dear boy, events’ can upset any well-laid plan makes even the hardiest centre director a trifle nervous when a proposed launch date coincides with one of the most febrile weeks in politics. Equally, launching in the teeth of Brexit itself ensures that this centre in particular will act as a hub for research, collaboration and engagement in Europe. In doing so, my goal is for the CBE to join swiftly the ranks of other high-quality institutes across Britain.
What are our plans for the CBE? As was said repeatedly during our 24 October, 2019 launch at the British Academy, university communities and civil societies alike value - and indeed require - permanent forums ensuring opportunities for important conversations. Doing so guarantees that the Centre’s outputs are indeed those of dialogue, and not dogwhistle: evidence-driven insights into broad trends and specific requirements of Britain’s relations with Europe, not knee-jerk summaries adding to the moribund echo chamber of Brexit.
To be sure, Brexit entails innumerable complex questions, the answers to which may not be clear for months, or even years. The point is to make use of the talent on offer at the right time. We’ve got an abundance of inhouse expertise that I’m keen to showcase, both within the Department of Politics, and across the various Faculties of the University of Surrey. For that reason, we’ve published three CBE Briefing Notes on Brexit’s impact on UK Defence, UK Higher Education, and UK Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (https://www.surrey.ac.uk/centre-britain-and-europe/research).
CBE Briefing Notes are designed to be an easy read: sectoral overview and insights, expert commentary drawn from our own and external interviews, quick statistics, stakeholder insights, concluding with short, medium and long-term impact analysis and policy suggestions. As I forever tell my students: ‘decision-makers tend read documents from back to front, so bite-size policy suggestions are a must-have’. The CBE will now turn to producing Brexit-specific briefing notes on diplomacy, supply chains and internal security, among others, while deepening its range of established research themes, along with other areas including UK-EU diplomacy, regional governance, integration, media and populism.
I’m particularly fortunate that my co-director, Dr Alia Middleton is the department’s resident psephologist, so expect to see our Director’s notes including both my own updates and her much-needed 2019 UK Election Watch special (https://www.surrey.ac.uk/centre-britain-and-europe/news). Analysing the impact of this particular election is key to ensuring the ‘Britain’ part of the CBE is strongly supported, while the wider consequences of what this means for Brexit ensures that folks working on the ‘European’ aspects of the Centre remain as busy as ever.
Beyond our outputs, I’m looking forward to making use of the strong engagement of our own staff with other networks of British and European scholars and institutes, allowing us to magnify the work we do in collaboration with others. Future work with Jean Monnet Centres of Excellence, university departments, think tanks and indeed government are all in the cross-hairs: from regular public events (https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/uk-sovereignty-in-an-age-of-brexit-tickets-72500269257) to key conferences and guest lectures, CBE events aim to enhance the quality of knowledge and dialogue that we share with our university community, staff students and visiting scholars.
It sounds a touch old fashioned, but the CBE is driven very much by my own belief that universities have a duty of care both to their students and the wider university community that they inhabit, to provide to the fullest extent possible, regular opportunities for clear-sighted, progressive debate on the most topical issues of the day. Taking this duty seriously means that within universities, academics of all stripes, need to continue to step forward in establishing permanent forums for such debates, and leading the discussions therein. I’m all too well aware that discussing almost any aspect of UK-EU relations invites serious
conversational and even conceptual challenges. But this same duty of care demands that we move beyond the Brexit psychodrama - complete with heroes and villains, and endless plot twists – to analysing that drama. While we may tire of the situation in an existential sense, we must remain deeply animated about the issue, and its consequences in an intellectual sense. The CBE aims to provide a new home for precisely that goal.