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UK universities lobby against a British exit from the EU

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • The British government has announced a 23 June referendum on the UK’s membership in the European Union
  • UK universities have quickly established themselves as vocal advocates of continued EU membership
  • Staff and student mobility between the UK and rest of the EU has become an important feature of British higher education
  • There are significant questions about how this movement of scholars and students would be affected by Britain’s departure from the EU

British Prime Minister David Cameron has announced a referendum on the UK’s membership in the European Union. On 23 June 2016, voters will be asked to respond to the question, “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”

The referendum arises from growing political pressure within the UK. The argument goes that the European Union has changed a great deal since the last British referendum on the question in 1975 (when the EU was known as the Common Market) and that, given the influence the EU now has over the daily lives of Britons that another vote is warranted.

As the BBC puts it, advocates of a British exit (or, borrowing from the Greek experience, a “Brexit”), “Believe Britain is being held back by the EU, which they say imposes too many rules on business and charges billions of pounds a year in membership fees for little in return. They also want Britain to take back full control of its borders and reduce the number of people coming here to work.”

Those in favour of remaining in the EU believe that the benefits of membership – free movement of goods and people, in particular – outweigh the costs.

As the referendum campaign ramps up through spring and summer, the question will now increasingly rest with the voters. Early polls suggest that public opinion is evenly split and this has set the stage for vigorous campaigning on both sides of the question through June.

Universities weigh in

British universities have come out quickly and forcefully in favour of continued EU membership. The Sunday Times recently carried an open letter, signed by 103 university vice-chancellors, that urged the public to consider the role the EU plays in strengthening the UK’s higher education institutions.

“Inside the EU we are better able to collaborate with partners across Europe to carry out cutting-edge research, from medical and healthcare advances to new materials, products and services,” said the letter. “In the EU the UK is also a more attractive destination for global talent, ensuring that our students are taught by the best minds from across Europe. This has a direct impact on our economy, driving growth, generating jobs, and improving people’s lives.”

Dame Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Kent, added, “The evidence shows that our universities will be significantly stronger and more effective if we stay in the EU. British students benefit from being taught by the best minds from across Europe. Membership of the EU is good for our universities and good for the science and research that improves people’s lives. Outside the EU, we risk cutting ourselves off from unique support and networks and undermining the UK’s position as a global leader in science and innovation.”

The universities clearly intend to be a prominent and proactive voice for continued EU membership, pointing in particular to some of the major EU research and staff mobility collaborations that British universities have access to today. It has not taken long, however, for some of their core arguments to come under scrutiny.

Alan Sked, Professor Emeritus at the London School of Economics, has pointed out that EU membership is not a prerequisite for participation in major European research initiatives. He notes for example, a 2013 European Council regulation providing for full participation for both EU and non-EU members in ERIC (the European Research Infrastructure Consortium). Professor Sked highlights as well the participation of non-EU members, such as Israel and Switzerland, in major European research initiatives, including the massive Horizon 2020 programme.

Writing on the Wonkhe blog, Emran Mian advances a similar devil’s advocate view, “EU research funding into the UK is less than a tenth of our net contribution to the EU budget. Actually a confident Brexit advocate can go further and suggest that, compared to the EU institutions, UK Research Councils have a leaner process for awarding funding and a better eye for what is promising.”

Impact on student mobility

If the argument regarding research affiliations can be tested in this way, the effects of a Brexit on student mobility within the EU are less clear. EU legislation on the free movement of citizens provides that those moving to another member state have the same access to education as citizens of that member state. In practice, this means that an EU student that moves to another EU country to study pays the same tuition fees and is eligible for the same funding supports as citizens of the host country.

The pro-EU lobby group Universities for Europe has it that more than 200,000 UK students have studied and worked abroad through the Erasmus mobility programme. It notes as well that more than 125,000 EU students were enrolled in UK universities in the 2013/14 academic year. This represents about 6% of total university enrolment in Britain, and is estimated to generate £2.27 billion (US$3.17 billion) for the UK economy and support up to 19,000 jobs.

It doesn’t necessarily follow that this EU enrolment would drop to zero should the UK leave the European Union but it seems reasonable to imagine that it would drop, especially if British universities were operating outside Erasmus or if differential tuition fees were introduced for EU students. In that event, the competitive position of the UK, vis-a-vis other major study destinations in the EU (or further afield), would almost certainly be weakened.

This is a troubling prospect, particularly given the significant role that EU students play in the UK’s enrolment base today. The latest available data clearly indicates that non-EU enrolment in UK is slipping in recent years. The number of first-year students from outside the EU, for example, fell by 3% between 2013/14 and 2014/15 alone.

At the same time, that shortfall has, to this point at least, been offset by increased enrolment by EU students. The Daily Mail reported recently that EU admissions applications to British universities are up 6% for the 2016/17 academic year – and that against a marginal decline (.3%) in domestic applications for the coming year.

The university argument against a Brexit, therefore, may come to rest more on the impacts on staff and student mobility, particularly as EU students have come to represent an increasingly important component of overall higher education enrolment in the UK.

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