Universities must make an optimistic case for staying in the EU

The higher education sector must make a “positive, optimistic case for staying in” was the general consensus at the Universities for Europe launch. “The Universities for Europe campaign, led by Universities UK, will ensure that the university sector is a strong, positive voice in the referendum debate.” said Dame Julia Goodfellow, University of Kent vice chancellor and UUK president-elect.

Speaking at the launch, Goodfellow said “The UK’s membership of the European Union makes the UK’s outstanding universities even stronger, contributing to economic growth, employable graduates and cutting edge research discoveries.”

The launch took place at University College London and highlighted how the UK’s membership of the European Union enhances university research and education and in turn benefits British people, the economy and our society with speeches from Chuka Umunna, Damian Green and Professor Dame Julia Goodfellow.

“Universities across the United Kingdom contribute significantly to Britain’s top place in the global influence rankings”, said Goodfellow, “Within the European Union we benefit from being a member of the biggest block of knowledge in the world. We can influence this body of knowledge and in turn draw strength from it.

The Erasmus programme was mentioned a lot during the launch; Goodfellow praised the scheme for benefitting over 200,000 British students and more than 20,000 British University staff to date.

Goodfellow also mentioned the 125,000 EU students studying at UK universities in 2012-13 “generating £2.27 billion for the UK economy and 19,000 British jobs in local communities around the country.” And the research funding Britain receives from Europe, “worth around 1bn pounds in 2013 – is undeniably important to the UK research base and to our economy more widely.”

Also speaking at the launch was Labour’s Shadow Business Secretary, Chuka Umunna, who spoke positively about Britain staying in the EU, mentioning his personal benefit from the EU Erasmus Socrates student exchange program when he was at Manchester University. “That experience broadened my own horizons.” Umunna also spoke about his pride for the University of Manchester team who discovered graphene, after receiving start-up funding for their work from the EU in 2007.

Umunna argued that EU membership matters for the sector highlighting EU R&D funding of £727 million a year for UK institutions, a 15.5% boosts to the UK’s science and research budget and increased innovation in the UK as some of the positives for being part of the EU. “The out campaign will argue that if we exited we would be able to use the monies that would otherwise go to the EU to spend on R&D. But as Dame Julia has said, knowledge and scholarship are borderless. Research cooperation transcends national boundaries and surely we want the brightest and the best from the EU bringing their ideas and developing them in the UK. “ Said the Labour MP.

“We must make the argument from a local as well as a national perspective” said Umunna. He also stressed the importance for making a positive case for staying in the EU rather than just pointing to the risks of being out and said that “we must not allow the referendum to be simply framed around issues of trade and immigration.”

Umunna concluded by saying “when the vote does come, it is crucial we persuade our fellow countrymen with head and heart to vote “yes” to stay in again.”

Finally, Rt Hon Damian Green, Chairman of Conservative European Mainstream said “The debate about Britain’s membership of the EU will not be won only by political or economic arguments – vital though they are. It will be won by the many sectors of our society who benefit hugely from our EU membership, but who regard it as a normal unquestioned part of their daily lives.”

Green mentioned that while the debate around membership often focuses on economic arguments, “we should not side-line the wider social arguments”. He went on to say that there are of course things wrong with the EU which need to change; “a reformed EU, which would be better for all member states, not just the UK, is a great benefit to the people of the UK.”

Green listed five ‘clear benefits’ of being a member of the EU for universities as follows:

  • EU membership is key to the global success of British universities and their contribution to the UK economy and society;
  • EU partnerships enhance the impact and competitiveness of the UK’s world-leading research;
  • Free movement of students and staff within the EU benefits the UK economy and universities;
  • The EU enables life-changing research, discoveries and inventions;
  • EU membership creates British jobs.

“Within those points the most significant consequences of EU membership on the UK higher education sector are the provision of support to EU students studying in the UK and access to European research funding.” said Green.

During questions, Michael Crick, a reporter for Channel 4 News and himself a governor of the University of Manchester challenged the panel on the lack of debate at the event, asking: “Isn’t there something rather bogus about this event, rather unhealthy; even, dare I say it, un-academic?” Chaka Umunna disagreed, saying that this line of argument would mean “no particular sector has the right to collectively take a position on this issue.” Umunna went on to say, “There is something quite sinister in an attempt to ‘muzzle’ any particular sector or interest group in the context of this debate.”

Responding to a question about votes for 16 and 17 year olds voting in the referendum, Green mentioned he’d written a pamphlet arguing for votes at 16 and said that there should be a full national debate not just for the referendum but in the context of wider electoral reform. Umunna said that; “It’s absolutely absurd to deny 16 and 17 year olds the vote in this referendum at the same time as having just allowed them to participate in the Scottish independence referendum.”

Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of Universities UK, said: “Universities UK is committed to ensuring that the significant benefits of EU membership to our universities – and through them, to the British people – are properly explained. Over the coming months the campaign will promote powerful evidence and highlight compelling stories about the benefits of EU membership and universities will host public debates across the country.”

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