A referendum on UK membership of the EU is around the corner and the HE sector is gearing up to campaign for continued membership. Good.
Though the trouble is that many of the arguments that the sector seems ready to deploy are all too easy for those advocating Brexit to rebut. I pick out four main arguments, based in turn on: research funding; research collaboration; staff mobility; and student mobility.
My heart isn’t in this, but here is what the rebuttals might look like.
The first argument in favour of continued membership is that UK universities receive EU funding for research. Certainly they do and they wouldn’t get it if we left. As Universities UK astutely point out, the graphene research project at the University of Manchester got EU funding – and look at it now; it’s an important part of the Chancellor’s vision of the Northern Powerhouse. But the problem with this argument is simple: if the UK was outside the EU, and saving the net contribution it makes to the EU budget of over £10bn, then it could easily make up the difference.
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. In any case, if they don’t, then isn’t that a problem we can fix? In other words, on the issue of research funding alone, Brexit has the potential to be net positive for UK universities.
But there is a second argument for continued membership. It is based on the collaboration between UK universities and those in other EU member states. Again Universities UK have a fine example: they mention the EU-funded Ebola+ research programme, by which the Universities of Oxford, Stirling and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine are working with universities in 11 other EU countries. If the UK left the EU, then our universities would miss out on these opportunities for collaboration. Well, perhaps, except that there are Swiss universities that participate in the Ebola research programme.
The wider point here is that Brexit advocates are not necessarily committed to the UK turning its back on its European neighbours, and the businesses, universities and other civil society organisations therein. Outside the formal structure of the EU, we will nevertheless find other ways to collaborate, much as Switzerland, Norway and countries further afield have done. And this isn’t simply because we are close-by and have a major research base of our own, it’s because of the institutional and personal relationships that have been established through past collaboration. The UK will not float off into a dark zone of the Atlantic if it leaves the EU; our phones, emails and airports will still work.
The same applies to mobility. Staff mobility is important. Universities UK point out that 14% of academic staff in UK universities are nationals of other EU member states. But it is very unlikely that any Brexit advocate will want to send them all back. Usually Brexit advocates argue that what they want for EU migrants is the same ‘points-based’ approach to determining eligibility to work in the UK as applies to non-EU migrants. In other words, if there is a skills gap, or more liberally, if the best candidate is an immigrant, then he or she should have leave to work here.
Now this is easier said than done. The reality is that leaving the EU will reduce the numbers of academic staff from elsewhere in the EU who want to and can work here. This is a problem. But the reduction will not be from 14% to zero. And, in the heat of a referendum campaign, let’s remember that this 14% figure might be put to other work: a Brexit advocate might argue that, if the UK leaves the EU, these are new jobs that would become available to high-skilled UK citizens. Can we explain what’s wrong with that?
I’ve left the strongest argument that the HE sector can muster till last: the student trade. 6% of all students in UK universities are from elsewhere in the EU. That’s a lot of fee income. And, over the decades after their graduation, it’s a lot of soft power. Of course it’s more than that too. It’s an example of our open society. It changes us to meet, argue, learn from, befriend and fall in love with people from other parts of Europe. I know that. I said it right at the beginning: my heart isn’t in this task of rebutting the arguments for continued membership of the EU.
But here’s the trouble: a Brexit advocate can say that, as with labour mobility, student mobility need not reduce to zero if the UK leaves the EU. It’s just that it will be managed differently. For example, EU students will not have access to the same financial support as UK students. And that is all the better. We lose a lot of money by lending money to migrants. We could use some of these student finance savings to provide scholarships to the brightest and the best applicants from other European countries. Can we show why this won’t work? Or even harder, can we prove that UK students have not in any way been crowded out by EU students? Brexit might be a great opportunity for widening participation, if as much as 6% of total student numbers – and the finance associated with them – becomes newly available to UK applicants.
I’ll stop there. My heart is heavy. There is time to construct better arguments. But we had better use it wisely. Or we won’t be helping the case for the UK to stay.