There will be a Referendum Bill in the Queen’s Speech on the 27th May 2015 And there is speculation that a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union could take place as soon as May 2016.
I’m sure that most of us would agree that the EU is not perfect, reform is needed and universities should be a voice in that debate. It will take a number of years to debate and deliver many of the reforms working with our European partners. However for the UK to have significant say in the reform we need to commit to a future in the EU.
Even before reform, it is abundantly clear that the UK’s membership of the EU has a very positive impact on our universities. Free movement of staff and students allows UK universities to access to talent from across Europe. Since it was established the Erasmus programme 207,546 students and 21,133 staff from the UK have benefited from it. The UK research base has been strengthened by over 6,000 individual researchers coming to UK universities by the EU’s Marie Curie scheme. 14% of academic staff in UK universities are from the EU, contributing to the talent pool and cultural diversity of UK education.
Our ability to deliver world-class research often depends on scale and extensive global networks of collaboration, which EU membership enables and enhances. UK universities accessed over £870 million in research funding in 2013 alone. The graphene research project at the University of Manchester received EU start-up funding in 2007. The researchers subsequently won a Nobel Prize in 2010 and secured further funding for graphene research and development from the UK government. It is estimated that graphene’s global market will be worth more than £256m by 2024.
But making the case for EU membership based solely on the direct benefit to universities is missing a bigger and more important argument.
EU membership enables and enhances universities positive impact for individuals, the economy and society: research that saves lives or leads to new products, the life changing experience of individual UK students or academics who studied or worked abroad, the jobs or companies created in local communities, or the alliances that enabled global influence or trade. The benefits could be from direct university participation in EU programmes, but also from collaborations, mobility, and networks enabled by the EU, and through the businesses, charities and communities that work with your university.
The British people, economy and society benefit from the UK being a member of the biggest block of knowledge in the world. Research, knowledge, innovation and technology are the factors that will decide future economic growth and human progress.
As the referendum debate intensifies, the university sector must be a powerful and positive voice in promoting the value of EU membership to our universities and impact through them to the British public. The national debate about the benefits of EU membership should be informed and strengthened by our arguments and evidence.
Our broad audience is the British public, and through the Universities for Europe campaign we will primarily aim to reach the university community – staff, students, alumni, HE sector organisation and reach out to other stakeholders with university links – those living in communities near universities, business and research partners, families of current staff and students. We cannot reach everyone but we can play a powerful role in informing these groups of benefits of EU membership, mobilising them in support of EU membership and providing a strong evidence base and the messages and tools to allow them to make the case.
This is not just about the future success of universities, it’s even more important than that. It’s about ensuring the future prosperity of the UK, it’s about maximising the chances of new discoveries that enhancing the society in which we live, it’s about the UK’s standing in the world, it’s about British jobs and it’s about opportunities for British people now and in the future.