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5 June 2015

The story of Britain is the story of immigration – and we must stand up for it

Immigration is part of our history, and our future must be neither narrow nor fragmented.

By Keith Burnett

Immigrants from Ireland to the US are now quite rightly seen as brave pioneers that withstood such hardships in pursuit of the American dream. The power of the US as a nation owes so much to them, and they are proud of the heritage they brought.

The same is no doubt true for the UK, with 1940s migration of immigrants from the West Indies and South Asia central in efforts to rebuild post-war Britain.

Around the world, the story of human society is one of ongoing migration.

Yet America continues to grapple with questions of identity. The struggle for civil rights it seems is not finally over, despite America freely voting for its first black President. Our perceptions can be trapped by our fears.

And last year’s European elections saw a swathe of Eurosceptic and far-right parties seize ground, with the UK Independence Party and French National Front both claiming victory less than a century after Fascism gripped the continent.

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The UK continues to be wracked by thoughts of immigrants – how to reduce numbers, stop a flood. The upcoming vote on EU membership promised in the recent Queen’s Speech will be defining in many ways.

What do we as universities – as people – have to say about that? Academia is nothing if it is narrow. Ideas are not separate from people, and they travel with them and always have. From Egypt and India, from Syria and Spain, from China and Africa.

This is especially true in our own times. Consider the giants of so many disciplines. How many of them made their contribution in countries and languages that were not those they were born into?

And it is particularly true of the UK, surely a nation that has absorbed and sometimes appropriated from all over the world. We simply must remember how important immigrants are to our country.

This week saw David Cameron embark on a series of diplomacy missions with his European counterparts to assuage fears that surround a Brexit. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker claimed the prime minister wants to use an in/out referendum to “dock” the UK “permanently to Europe”.

But the rise of Ukip has seen fears mount over the nationalistic sentiment of the UK electorate, not least after the party claimed 3 million votes in last month’s General Election, with frustration growing in Europe that Britain is increasingly pursuing an agenda defined by isolationism and protectionism.

For generations, scholars have come to the UK, particularly from Europe, because they wanted to join our academic life and vision. From Ludwig Wittgenstein and Sigmund Freud to Joseph Raz and Emile Durkheim, foreign academics have done great things for this country, which they made their adopted home. They are part of us.

It is vitally important that we make sure our colleagues from across the world know how much we appreciate them, and not only for their efforts in withstanding the onslaught of inclement Yorkshire weather,  Teeside wind and Aberystwyth rain. That we value their intellectual commitment to us and British academia, making sure they know that we want them to stay with us.

This is not only the right thing to do, but even more pressing given that what we perhaps took for granted about our future is now being questioned.

In my role as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield, I will be trying with others to help make sure our European colleagues in particular are clear on how far their roots here extend. I would not want my children to look back and question what we did when faced with these dangers.

History charges us to think beyond the immediate, and to remember the lessons that have been hard won by those who travelled before us. We should not take for granted what this means in our own time – if we could only ask ourselves if our descendants will be proud of what we think and do today.

The values of our universities resonate with those who have crossed international boundaries. Now is the time for UK academia to reciprocate – our future must be neither narrow nor fragmented.

Sir Keith Burnett is Vice-Chancellor at the University of Sheffield


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