One of the formative experiences of my life was spending the third year of my undergraduate degree in West Berlin, as an “Assistant” at a Gesamtschule (the German equivalent of a comprehensive school) in 1987 and 1988.
Having recently been back to visit the country, I was reminded of the implications of living in a divided city, where the presence of one wall split a single culture into two. One of my strongest memories is running back to Checkpoint Charlie – the border between East and West Berlin – to meet the midnight deadline for re-entry to the West, having enjoyed a fabulous evening of Brechtian theatre at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm followed by some heady Berlin beer.
The division of Berlin and its subsequent consequences has made me acutely aware in my adulthood of the need – whether economic, social, professional or personal – for a well-informed understanding of different cultures.
Fast forward to Sao Paulo two weeks ago, which I visited to set up a new office for De Montfort University (DMU) in the British Consulate and make arrangements for our exhibition “They Can Play” about the impact of Brazilian footballers on European football. There, I delivered a lecture to the Sao Paulo Football Federation about the vagaries of supporting QPR in the English Premier League (which was due to last for an hour but, such is the passion of the Brazilians for football, extended to three).
After the lecture, a dapper and intellectual elderly Brazilian gentleman came up to me with a photocopy of a British newspaper article.
“Is it true,” he quietly asked, “that a van is driving around London telling immigrants to go home? What do the British people feel about that?”
You can probably imagine my embarrassment.
But where could I stand on the issue, being as I am a lecturer and not a politician? While the political football of immigration gets kicked back and forth between BIS and the Home Office (one day Vince Cable rebukes Theresa May for her supposed rhetoric; the next, May cites her arguable need to meet a manifesto commitment), universities need to continue to do what they do best: stimulate intellectual debate to promote greater understanding of different cultures and contribute to the GDP of UKplc by recruiting international students.
DMU has chosen to go further. Drawing on our collective passion to demonstrate to the world that Britain is not an insular country (particularly in the light of the looming in/out EU referendum), as well as my own personal beliefs in cultural exchange, we are launching the #DMUglobal project this year.
#DMUglobal has a very simple premise. We want to offer up to 50 per cent of our students an opportunity for an international engagement during their degree programme at DMU. In actual numbers, this means that eventually we want to send 11,000 DMU students overseas.
International engagement can be anything from a four week study tour to Germany to enjoy intensive German language courses, appreciate German culture and visit the Audi factory in Stuttgart as part of a business course, to a year-long internship negotiated with our network of global business partners; it can be a four week placement during next year’s World Cup working with FIFA on international property rights, or a three month academic engagement with our partner university of Santa Maria in the south of Brazil.
Appropriately enough, we will be funding #DMUglobal from the additional international student recruitment that we have achieved over the last two years. It’s a financial policy that makes sense and an international engagement which will become more and more important for institutes of education in the future. I hope it will make instances like the Home Office’s notorious ‘racist vans’ less and less likely to occur.
Meanwhile, the elderly gentleman of my Brazilian anecdote was gracious enough to spare my blushes, and quickly turned the conversation to the scandal of Brazilian international Julio Cesar becoming second choice keeper at my championship club QPR.
That was, of course, an easier question to answer than why those vans were driving around Hackney – which is a question that all of us in higher education must urgently act and reflect upon.
Professor Dominic Shellard is vice-chancellor of De Montfort University