Four reasons a Brexit would be bad news for UK universities

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The UK’s universities have largely backed the campaign to stay. But what does membership bring to higher education?

‘The opportunities and challenges we face are global, not national’, says Michael Arthur of UCL.
‘The opportunities and challenges we face are global, not national’, says Michael Arthur of UCL. Photograph: Alamy

Should we stay or should we go? That’s (almost) the question the nation will be answering in ballot boxes on 23 June. As the campaigns gather momentum, the arguments are stacking up on both sides: Brexit would be good for big business. It would be bad for farmers. It would threaten the NHS. It would protect the NHS. The Royal Family would be miffed.

The UK’s universities have largely backed the campaign to stay. But what does membership bring to higher education?

‘Collaboration across borders means better research impact’

Michael Arthur, president and provost, UCL

The opportunities and challenges we face are global, not national – from climate change to space exploration. The UK does not have a monopoly on brilliance. If we are going to find the best solutions, we must keep bringing the best scientists and researchers together.

The European Union plays a vital role in enabling this. Research carried out in collaboration with international partners has 50% more impact than that carried out by a single country.

At UCL, we recently led a team of EU researchers that detected gases on the planet 55 Cancrie. By bringing the best minds together, we were able to examine the atmosphere of this super-Earth in unprecedented detail. This will impact on our lives for years and centuries to come.

To ensure that our scientific research and innovation continues to have maximum impact, we should embrace, not reject, the opportunities that EU membership provides.

‘Exchanges prepare students for the international jobs market’

Dame Julia Goodfellow, vice-chancellor, University of Kent

We must not underestimate the importance of schemes that enable our students to live and study in Europe. At the University of Kent, we are huge advocates of the Erasmus programme – our students have been benefitting from it for the past 30 years.

Since 2000, more than 6,000 of our students have taken places to study or work throughout Europe. They have attended some of the continent’s most prestigious universities and undertaken a diverse variety of work placements, from government departments in Spain to teaching English in the Indian Ocean island of La Réunion.

The value of such experiences is not always easy to quantify, but we know that those that take part are half as likely to experience long-term unemployment. So while we can’t put a figure on the value of living and studying in the EU, what we can say is that it goes a long way in helping our students to prepare to enter an increasingly international jobs market.

‘We need international talent in teaching and research’

Ian Diamond, vice-chancellor, University of Aberdeen

Our ability to attract the best researchers and academics from across the EU is vital for the success of UK universities. The University of Aberdeen is privileged to work with colleagues from across Europe, both here in Scotland and as part of cross-border teams.

We are, for example, about to oversee a four-year project to develop the next generation of MRI scanners, which will be able to detect diseases earlier and in greater detail. The project involves collaboration with six EU member states. Several of our own researchers on the team originate from different European countries.

EU membership means that talented staff can come to work at the University of Aberdeen without worrying about visas or resident permits. It makes it easier for us to employ experts who contribute greatly to the teaching we provide, and significantly strengthen our research and innovation capabilities. This in turn has a positive impact on our international reputation, as well as our contribution the national and local economy.

‘EU funding helps universities to transform local economies’

Steve Smith, vice-chancellor, University of Exeter

Over the past decade, European structural funds have enabled the University of Exeter to offer world-class buildings and facilities, and internationally renowned research activities at our campuses in Penryn and Truro in Cornwall. As a result, the economy of Cornwall and the wider region has been transformed.

Some £100 million of European funding (from Objective One and Convergence) added £491m to the Cornish economy between 2002-2012, and created 11,300 jobs. This represents 1% of the GDP of the entire Cornwall economy, and accounts for 1 in every 155 jobs in Cornwall. The investment has also facilitated high-skills job creation in this struggling part of the national economy.

In 2013, EU convergence funding invested in 24 principal investigators in our Environment and Sustainability Institute in Cornwall. Within 21 months, 160 people were working there – these are all highly skilled jobs, paying well above the national average salary.

More recently, we opened a science and engineering research support facility, which will facilitate the development of long-term research projects with local businesses – a project which received £3.9m from the European Regional Development Fund.

We are immensely proud of these achievements and the contribution they have made to Cornwall’s economic development. It is thanks to EU funding that they have been possible.

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