Jean Monnet chair: we have every right to engage in debates on Europe

As Cameron renegotiates, academics should be at the heart of the debate. Etienne Laurent/EPA

Paul Nuttall, the deputy leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), has warned the BBC not to use EU-funded professors, known as Jean Monnet Chairs, as “supposedly impartial speakers” on European affairs. Having myself twice been a Jean Monnet Chair of European Politics – first at Aberystwyth University in 2010 and second at the University of Kent since 2013 – I feel it is my duty and responsibility to clarify their role and refute UKIP’s insinuation that my colleagues and I are biased in favour of Britain staying in the European Union.

A UKIP press release said that the system of EU-funded professors “amounts to the erosion of academic independence via a form of paid-for propaganda”. Nuttall said it was: “akin to the sort of deliberate indoctrination one would expect in Cold War Communism, not in the 21st-century western world.”

UKIP’s statements came as Universities UK launched a campaign called Universities for Europe, arguing for Britain to stay in the EU.

A bust of Jean Monnet in the Peace Palace in The Hague. Oeuvre personnel/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

The European Commission states that a Jean Monnet Chair is “a teaching post with a specialisation in European Union studies for university professors”. They are named after Jean Monnet, a French political economist regarded as a founding father of the EU. The position is awarded for teaching excellence on deepening curriculum, research on EU affairs or mentoring a young generation of teachers on EU subject areas. They disseminate knowledge, promote understanding and foster debate around European issues, in a critical and objective manner.

Academic objectivity

Since commencing my work at the University of Kent I have engaged students, academics, civil servants and politicians at both national and European levels and the wider public in furthering understanding of European issues. During the 2014 European elections, the Global Europe Centre at the University of Kent held a hustings, open for all registered candidates. I’m glad the UKIP representative, Alan Stevens, after much persuasion, attended and engaged in a vigorous debate with our students. This demonstrated academic objectivity and freedom in practice, availing equal opportunity to all parties.

My academic colleagues and I have engaged with several House of Lords’ enquiries, including the European External Action Service, EU-Russia relations and EU Neighbourhood Policies, which were critical of the status quo and called for further reform.

Paul Nuttall’s inferences of partiality are ungrounded, and fail to recognise the important work academia brings to policy debates through research impact and critical engagement. As a former university lecturer, I am sure he would understand the nature and the role of academia. Indeed, UKIP was founded by an eminent academic, Alan Sked, of the London School of Economics, who through his own research fostered the European debate, in an open and critical way.

By refuting the freedom of speech to academics holding Jean Monnet Chairs, Paul Nuttall not only treads a very fine line towards demagogy, he in fact challenges the very foundations of his own political party.

Widespread EU funding

It’s also helpful to remember that all UK universities are heavily funded by various European sources. These include Horizon 2020, with its €80 billion (£56 billion) framework programme to advance research across all fields of knowledge, the Erasmus+ student and academic exchange programme – and various other collaborative research council programmes including the Jean Monnet activities.

To infer that academics who are funded by the EU should not be engaged in the EU referendum debate is to deny all UK-based academics freedom of speech to engage for either the Yes or No campaign.

Academics plays an important part in the world of politics and policy and it’s important they also engage in the debate over Britain’s role in Europe. I look forward to the forthcoming debate on the EU referendum and if Paul Nuttall would like to engage with our academics and students at the University of Kent, I would be happy to host him here.