Oxford hosts leadership programme to tackle Brexit effects

Thirty postgraduates from European universities have gathered at Balliol to address Europe's social issues.

A protest in support of Catalonian independence last year.

Oxford University this week hosts the first classes for a new European network of future leaders tasked with solving the continent’s social problems. The initiative, formed in response to Brexit, aims to bring diverse young minds together to address issues such as growing nationalism and youth unemployment.

Oxford is one of thirteen elite European institutions taking part in the programme run by the Europaeum, an organisation which aims to strengthen pan-European ties across university networks.

It has awarded thirty postgraduate researchers with a scholarship of around €10,000, which will cover their travel, tuition, and accommodation for the various seminars.

The first cohort – which includes four graduates from Oxford – arrived at Balliol College yesterday for the first week-long module. Seven more events will be held over the next two years in cities across Europe, including Leiden, Geneva and Prague.

Dr Andrew Graham, former Master of Balliol, who conceived the idea for the programme, said that though it was triggered by Britain voting to leave the European Union, the continent currently faces a wide set of social troubles which go far beyond Brexit.

“Brexit was absolutely part of it but universities in Helsinki and Madrid and Prague and elsewhere face issues that are just as intractable. There’s the rise of the far right in Germany, the disputes in Catalonia, the tension around migration, and high rates of youth unemployment in places like Greece and Portugal,” Graham said.

“These are European problems, not just EU or eurozone problems alone. But it was Brexit that made me think it was time for something fresh.”

Graham believes programmes like these could help young academics have a practical impact on the rest of society, something which he thinks has been lacking recently.

“The Brexit result clearly had a lot to do with a fundamental absence of leadership. But it was also about opposition to evidence, and an information barrier among large parts of the public,” he said.

“As academics we have to think: what happened to the values of the Enlightenment and the insights from the scientific revolution? What the hell did we do wrong?”

Stressing the need for practical solutions, Graham added: “The results of their efforts have got to have value. I don’t necessarily mean monetary value, but value for society. They can be idealistic, but they also have to be pinned into reality – ideally something that could be implemented in one form or another.

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“What we want are outcomes that will excite people and be useful, whether to an MP or the European parliament or an NGO or business. It could be all sorts of things, but it has to interest someone and give them a solution that they can bring about.”

The Europaeum was created in 1992 by Lord Weidenfeld, Sir Ronald Grierson, and Lord Roy Jenkins, the chancellor of Oxford at the time. It aims to strengthen pan-European ties across university networks by bringing together talented young people who could shape the future of the continent.

It is made up of twelve universities, of which St Andrews is the only other UK university.

Lord Patten, chancellor of Oxford, was appointed Europaeum’s new Chair of Trustees in October. Speaking at Balliol to announce the new programme in September, he said: “Does anyone doubt that Europe faces huge difficulties? Does anyone doubt that the future of Europe must lie with the young? Does anyone doubt that the UK will be a better and more stimulating place if it continues to be fully contributing to, and engaging with, the intellectual mainstream of Europe rather than retreating into English Nationalism?

“My predecessor as chancellor, Roy Jenkins, was proud to have initiated the Europaeum and I am equally proud to be part of these new initiatives.”

The programme comes after a series of initiatives by the University to maintain its European links post-Brexit. Louise Richardson, vice-chancellor of Oxford, announced last month a new partnership with four Berlin universities which will facilitate increased collaboration.