This article is more than 8 years old

Contemplating a Brexit for UK HE

Getting ahead of the EU referendum debates to come, Emran Mian picks apart four main arguments from the HE sector's campaign to stay in the EU.
This article is more than 8 years old

Emran was formerly Director of the Social Market Foundation, and a member of Wonkhe's Editorial Group.

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.

13 responses to “Contemplating a Brexit for UK HE

  1. I find all those rebuttals pretty convincing! How much stronger would they be if you really believed in them?

    Your key point is: “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.” Of course they aren’t. Many who believe the UK should negotiate a new relationship outside the EU are pro-European, in the sense that they welcome close links and exchanges with our neighbours. Just not through the medium of the EU.

    If you accuse a Swiss person of being “anti-European” they will look at you with bewilderment. The term has been hijacked by EU advocates in the UK to tarnish their opponents.

  2. All your suggestions about the dangers of a Brexit are founded on the premise that leaving the EU means we would not have future dealings with the EU. Foreign students have been studying in the UK since the 1300’s. There is strong exchange of students, trade and money between the EU and countries such as Iceland, Norway & Switzerland, which are, and it’s important to note, European countries that have declined EU membership, preferring to simply freely trade with the EU in all matters instead. The EU is not Europe, nor is it about trade. The EU is about a political union. Our EU membership bill has risen in the last 12 years by 366% to £11 Billion a year – just think how many NHS hospitals, HE & FE places that could fund on an annual basis. EU membership has cost almost as many fisheries jobs as were lost during the pit closures of the 80’s. Inequality has steadily increased over the last 40 years despite years of both Labour, Conservative and even a coalition – the only consistent factor throughout has been our EU membership. It is also accepted by the Bank of England, that EU membership is keeping wages low, driving further inequality. EU membership benefits large multinational corporations not SME’s. Only 5% of UK companies directly export to the EU and we now trade more with non-EU countries. Educators have the burden of inspiring our next generation, in doing so, it should acknowledge we are part of world that is truly global therefore why focus on the EU which in the next 10 -15 years will, by the EU’s own admission, account for only 10% of world’s GDP

  3. But would the UK government up the science budget by the same amount as UK universities gather in EU research funding (paid for through savings to the UK’s EU subscription)? In reality unlikely. Other priorities (like the structural deficit) may be seen as having as a greater call on any subscription savings.

    1. Exactly. I mean, this government loves cutting outside of their protected areas. If a brexit happened, it seems likely that university funding would massively decrease

      1. Simply not the case. Vote in a Govt that does increase science funding and with an extra 66 million a day why not? Also, a lot of science funding is regardless of whether you’re an EU member or not (read the smallprint) ask Norway or Switzerland. Not EU members but do secure impressive levels of science funding

        1. And, this isn’t rampant anti-EU stuff but our university funding will significantly drop with continued EU membership. Look at Greece, this will force ever closer political union – a Fed States of Europe that by its OWN predictions will in next 10 – 15 years drop in economic output – meaning less money for us all. The laws/policies are handed down by commission & president that is appointed, not elected. Massively unaccountable, undemocratic and responsible for 64% of our laws. By 2020, they will be 100% of our laws and we, although 1 of the largest contributors have only 8% of the vote share. Vote No, make the elected Govt in UK wholly responsible for our laws and vote them out if you don’t like what they do. If you think this Govt is right-wing, then seriously check out what unelected EU-Officials force sovereign nations to do to their education funding in the peripheral states like Portugal, Greece and Ireland so that debt owed by private banks can be dumped onto taxpayers. 70Bn of Ireland’s debt wasn’t theirs to owe. Greece went bust owing 30Bn, now owes around 300Bn and most have that additional debt has gone to pay debts of private insurance/banking institutions. Continued EU membership will also effectively privatise our NHS – check out TTIP and there is nothing we will be able to do about it. BBC is very pro-EU because it’s had over 22 million – kinda means we’ve been paying for our TV licence twice. Richard Branson wants us to stay even though he moved his company to Switzerland (not in the EU) and tax exiled himself but he makes 500 million a year from NHS contracts and with TTIP he’s set to make more. But don’t believe anything I’ve written, go check the FACTS for yourself guys

          If you want anymore info please let me know.
          PS not UKIP or in anyway political. I want to leave EU and with additional 66 million a day call for the abolition of tuition fees, we’d certainly be able to afford it

  4. Will makes an important observation. Can we really trust this Government to invest in ANY sector of Education in a meaningfully sustainable way? The EU provides a crucial financial safety net and an imperative developmental strategic framework for research at UK universities.

  5. There is more to consider here than students, and the stock markets, there is also the great British workers as well, those people who go to work every day and pay TAXES to run our country.
    Indeed you need to be over 60 to realize that after being conned into the “ Common Market “ it has morphed without our consent into a very dangerous new style Communistic and faceless organisation not fit for purpose.
    There are a lot of nasty little surprises yet to come from some faceless EU numty sat in an office probably working out how to charge us for using our own roads or not running tyres any lower than 4mm depth.

    Greece and Ireland owe so much they will never be allowed to leave, and we will never get our loans back, while Cameron will get the concessions he wants because he knows the EU cannot work without our cash, unfortunately any concessions will probably be given back the next Labour government, and I would like to know how much funding is going on under the table to Spain and Italy or any other EU country in order to stop further embarrassment.
    Great Briton when it was a great country traded with the world and its own commonwealth on which we did the dirty led by treacherous politicos.

    Remember politicians like Cameron are short term jobbers, many are not particular clever some are sincere but politically naive, and some are self serving liars, take your pick on the currant lot, but we the Great British public have to live with their mistakes long term when just like Tony Blair politicians are gone into more lucrative jobs, and we have suffered under this form of expensive political EU mistake long enough.

    There is nothing to fear by removing ourselves out of EU clutches, and being in charge of our own destiny we would have enough cash to fund student places, by reducing benefits to immigrants who have never contributed to them, indeed benefits were only to provide short term help until a new job was found, not to live on or fund a way of life.
    The infrastructure of our country is creaking while we subsidise failed and corrupt schemes dreamed up by a failed EU experiment for which our bills and the fines for having a strong economy will only continue to rise and rise.

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