The national, broad-based European Union (EU) referendum IN campaign launches today with the aim of securing Britain’s future in Europe. In July, well ahead of the pack, university leaders made clear they were firmly in the ‘in camp’ with the launch of the Universities for Europe campaign resulting in widespread news coverage.
Universities’ core argument is that membership of the EU makes the UK’s outstanding universities even stronger and that this in turn benefits the British people. Since the launch of the campaign, I’ve been regularly challenged with the (absolutely reasonable) question: where is the evidence for this claim? Or put more directly, what has the EU ever done for us?
Most of the questions have been friendly, from university staff, from journalists, from politicians or from members of the public interested in finding out more about why universities value EU membership so much. I’ve received some challenging, although on the whole, very reasonable questions from Eurosceptics. Just a small number of the questions have been more hostile attacks from a more extreme Eurosceptic position – a recent article by Nigel Farage springs immediately to mind.
For readers of Wonkhe, I’ve put together some of the positive arguments I’ve made, selected some evidence to share with you and picked out common Eurosceptic challenges and my responses to them.
So, what has the EU ever done for us?
Increase the positive impact of university research
Cutting-edge research leads to advances, discoveries and inventions which improve people’s lives. Often the very best research is done by the best minds collaborating in teams working across borders.
A government report from 2013 identified the UK as the most productive research base in the world. This is in no small part to the UK’s success in international collaboration. Over half the UK’s academic outputs are now in collaboration with other countries, whereas the US still languishes on a third.
The EU is both a catalyst and an enabler of collaboration. It breaks down barriers to collaboration and makes working across borders easier by reducing the level of bureaucracy which researchers face when putting together complex multi-national bids. EU science and research programmes support research excellence and efficiency leading to greater impact that benefits the economy, society and individuals.
Working together, UK and European researchers can pool their knowledge, infrastructure and resources to achieve more together than they could do alone. Knowledge and many of today’s challenges are global, not national. In the EU, researchers can collaborate more easily to come up with solutions on an international scale, making the most of Europe’s diversity to generate new ways of thinking.
There are hundreds of examples of how the EU supports research collaborations which are delivering strong impact and improving people’s lives. Let me share just two.
EuroCoord is an EU backed network of Excellence established by several of the biggest HIV research projects and collaborations in Europe. It improves the management and lives of individuals infected with HIV. This pan-European network, with 25 partners from across the world, allows British universities to conduct research on an amazing wealth of international data and to pool expertise and resource with excellent scientists across Europe to achieve medical advances that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. It has also created e-learning modules to help healthcare staff improve their management of HIV patients.
The Human Brain Project is an ambitious European project to improve our understanding of the human brain so that we can develop cures for diseases like Alzheimer’s. It will also lead to the creation of new computers that work similar to the brain. The project has only been possible with European teamwork that has brought the best minds together to understand the human brain. The UK has a central role in the project, with 11 UK universities joining forces with over 100 other partners from 23 other countries. The EU backed project infrastructure will ensure that British universities will be at the forefront of future brain research.
Eurosceptics will argue that the UK doesn’t need the EU’s help to collaborate, that we’re good enough without EU support. These arguments miss a number of key points. UK universities and academic staff are indeed world-class in their own right but the EU helps to make our outstanding universities even stronger. Just being ‘good enough’ isn’t enough for our outstanding universities. British universities are and should be world-leaders of high impact, international collaborations. A major reason why UK universities are so successful is our international outlook and connections. These help us to remain globally competitive by attracting talent and collaborating with partners from across the world. Outside the EU, our research would be less connected, more fragmented and arguably less relevant on the world stage. Inside the EU, we are part of the strongest knowledge-producing region in the world. Inside the EU we can play a leadership role in the future of European research, science and higher education, rather than choosing to isolate ourselves in an era of growing interdependency.
Eurosceptics will argue that the real research powerhouses are outside the EU, that we should concentrate on working with them, not waste time on Europe. But the two aren’t mutually exclusive. UK universities’ global success depends on sharing knowledge within the EU, as well as internationally. 80% of UK’s internationally co-authored papers are written with partners from other EU countries. Moreover, EU programmes help UK universities to collaborate with partners not just in the EU but all over the world. EU research projects between 2007-2013 involved partners from over 170 countries. Our ability to work with partners beyond the EU would be impacted by leaving the EU. We would not only lose access to valuable support and networks, but our global visibility, influence and profile would be diminished.
Eurosceptics will argue that can still enjoy the same benefits from EU research programmes outside the EU. There is simply no evidence for this. We have no idea whether, and on what terms, the UK could negotiate access to EU research programmes outside the EU. A European major power leaving the EU is unprecedented. Even if we could negotiate some access, we would move from playing a leadership role in European science and research to picking up scraps from the sidelines.
Attract the brightest and best to the UK
Our universities, our students, our research, the economy and the British people benefit from freedom of movement across the EU to work and study.
Universities can access top talent from across Europe and British students benefit from being taught by the best minds from across Europe. 15% of academic staff teaching and researching at UK universities are from other EU countries and among them are some of the most productive researchers in the UK. Over half of the European Research Council’s prestigious Consolidator grants awarded to UK universities in 2014 were won by staff from other EU countries.
Over 125,000 EU students are currently studying at UK universities. These students help to foster an international, outward-looking culture on university campuses which in turn provides British students with an international university experience preparing them for an ever more globalised world.
The EU provides opportunities for UK students and researchers to experience living and working in continental Europe. The EU’s Erasmus programme – one of the most well-known schemes to foster mobility between European universities – has benefitted more than 200,000 British students and over 20,000 British university staff to date. This is not about academic tourism but about building networks and absorbing other languages and cultures. These are the insights needed for British students to become the global leaders of tomorrow.
And let’s not forget the positive economic impact of European students and staff on local communities. Latest research shows that EU students generate around £2.27 billion for the UK economy and 19,000 British jobs in local communities around the country depend on them.
Eurosceptics will argue that European students and researchers will still come to the UK even if we’re not in the EU. This is a careless, risky assumption to make. Leaving the EU and putting up barriers to work and study makes it more likely that European students and researchers will choose to go elsewhere – strengthening our competitors and weakening the UK’s universities.
Create jobs and drive economic growth
Universities drive local economies, provide skilled graduates for the workforce, fuel innovation through research and enterprise and create jobs. EU programmes support universities to maximise their positive local economic impact, benefitting British people.
With EU support, UK universities foster entrepreneurship and employability among staff, students and graduates. Plymouth University is a partner in the EU ‘Unlocking Potential’ programme which has been supporting people to develop and businesses to grow for over ten years. So far it has helped to create over 1,300 graduate level jobs in over 800 businesses through skills training, placements and a dedicated recruitment platform.
With EU support, UK universities help turn ideas and research discoveries into new companies, generating local business growth and jobs. The University of Ulster’s Nanotechnology and Integrated Bioengineering Centre received support from the European Regional Development Fund and has now generated 25 patents and three high-value spin-out companies in medical sensors and electro-stimulation devices. Together, these companies are valued at almost £100m with over 150 skilled employees and produce medical innovations which have a global impact on health costs and people’s lives.
So when you’re challenged with the question ‘What has the EU ever done for us?’ tell people about jobs, tell them about the transformational impact of university research, tell them about life-changing opportunities for students and tell them about the positive impact on local economies. You can say with conviction that the European Union makes our outstanding universities even stronger and that strong universities are good for the British people.