Thought for the Day - Rev Dr Michael Banner - 31/08/2012

Good morning.

London Metropolitan University, it was reported yesterday, has had its licence to admit students from outside the EU revoked because of what the UK Border Agency identified as ‘serious and systemic failings.’

Amongst passages from the Bible which many remember with affection, even from perhaps less than fully willing childhood attendance at services or school assemblies, is one from the very beginning of the book of Acts. Filled with the holy spirit – or as some bystanders suggest, simply filled with spirits – the apostles, all Galileans, speak out and are heard by each and every one in the cosmopolitan crowd in their very own tongue. The list of those present is a positive gazetteer of the ancient world: Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya, and Rome, plus Cretans and Arabians - just about every nation under heaven in other words.

It is a great and stirring vision. The different languages of those different peoples gathered in Jerusalem divided them – and with such divisions come suspicion, misunderstanding and conflict. When the Spirit of God inspires the apostles and enables them to overcome this linguistic discord, the conditions are created for a new understanding between the nations, and in place of discord, trust, cooperation and harmony.

There is, of course, a rather sad irony here. Universities were born sometime around the 12th century, when that story from the Bible was not merely a nostalgic echo from childhood, but served as a model and standard for human community. It was, for the founders of universities, in modern parlance, a mission statement – and the university of Paris in the 13th century offered a universe of subjects to a universe of students, owing their allegiance not to any national loyalties, but to truth and wisdom. The irony, then, is just that the insecurities and conflicts of modern times which lead us to police our borders, and our university admissions, ever more robustly, are themselves the products of the divisions, suspicions and misunderstandings against which universities originally stood.

Expressing concerns about the decision relating to London Metropolitan University, a spokesman for the NUS referred to the potentially catastrophic effects on higher education, a 12.5 billion £ export industry for the UK he claimed – and my own College here in Cambridge has students from 68 countries round the world so could be said to be doing its bit for the university industry. But of course, no matter the economic contribution universities make, they have to be regulated and should admit only legitimate students. There is however more than just money at stake in ensuring that even with appropriate regulation our universities remain international – for me it’s a matter of keeping alive that vision and spirit of universal human cooperation and community just at a time when borders, and consequently suspicions, seem to be getting stronger.

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