Compared to other industries and sectors of society which are split evenly between staying and leaving the EU, the UK university sector is unusual in its cry to remain. Indeed a poll of nearly 2,000 UK researchers in March found that a staggering 83% were in favour of remaining in the EU.
To clarify, here’s how either staying or leaving will affect UK universities and you as a student.
New figures published last Friday by Universities UK demonstrates that the EU research funding we receive generates more than 19,000 jobs across the UK, £1.86 billion for the UK economy and contributes more than £1 billion to GPD. The UK received more than £836 million in research grants and contracts from EU sources in 2014/15, amounting to 14.2% of all UK income from research grants and contracts. The UK wins an outsized share of EU research funding because it has a greater number of internationally renowned universities.
In recent years the UK university sector has also benefited from borrowing through the European Investment Bank (EIB), which offers lower-cost access to the capital markets. Last month University College London received a £280m loan from the EIB, the largest the bank has ever given to a university. Over the past ten years the EIB has given £4bn to Britain’s education sector, including to 30 universities and 42 further education colleges.
Staff & Students
In the UK approximately a sixth of academic staff come from other European countries and 5% of students.
The EU's free movement of labour is useful for UK universties in attracted the very best students and staff from the rest of Europe without having to go through the rigmarole of work visas. A change in visa arrangements might deter some high-calibre academics from other European countries in applying and coming to the UK, and we may lose the very best to European universities.
Global issues can be tackled most effectively when working in partnerships and pooling resources and can lead to bigger, better and more impactful research and discoveries. If we choose to leave the EU, the UK won’t have the same access to the networks and partnership opportunities that we do now.
Examples of collaborative EU-funded projects include basic and applied research at the Centre for Cancer Genetic Epidemiology at the University of Cambridge, which has received three multi-million pound project grants to collaborate with partners across Europe and beyond to characterise susceptibility to breast and other cancers, using rich data drawn from many countries.
The number of students from EU countries studying in the UK has grown in recent years and they now make up about 5% of UK student numbers, bringing in more than £200m a year in fees alone. EU students qualify for England’s loan system, unlike non-EU students, so are therefore less deterred by the £9,000 tuition fees. However, leaving the EU would mean that students don’t have access to the same loan system which could lead to a decline in the number of EU students coming to study in the UK as they would be recruited as international students, which would mean their fees would go up substantially.
Both students and universities currently benefit from the EU-funded Erasmus exchange scheme, which sees around 10,000 British students study at EU universities through the scheme each year, and a similar number coming in the other direction. Leaving the EU would make this exchange a lot harder as the funding currently available for individuals travelling won't be accessible.
Additionally, academics have warned that fewer European exchanges would leave the UK in an 'insular' position, with home students less exposed to other cultures. For UK students, studying and living with students from a variety of cultures around the world is incredibly beneficial.
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We gain funding from sources that are tied to the EU, but open to other countries as well. For example Britain recieves money from Horizon 2020, the €80bn EU programme for research and innovation, however the programme is open to non-EU countries as well. Critics state that the UK has the only EU universities in the world’s top 20 (as ranked by Times Higher Education) and the most Nobel prizes of any member-state, and that the idea that it would be kicked out of Horizon 2020 is impracticable and unthinkable.
Leaving the EU would mean that EU students would be charged full international fees. This would end the practice of charging foreign students differently according to their nationality, and if enough students come from EU countries it could create a windfall for universities to spend on scholarships for the brightest or help for students from poorer backgrounds. Furthermore, the Vote Leave campaign has been clear that some of the money currently spent on EU membership would in future be dedicated to scientific research.
As demand to UK universities is currently so high, if there is a drop in EU numbers more UK students would be able to attend university so they'd not be worse off.
The EU regulates what we can and cannot research, for example we currently subsidise tobacco farming, restrict GM crops against its own scientific advice and promote homeopathic remedies for farm animals. In this way, the direction of research is not in the hands of the expert researchers and scientists.
This means that, in some cases, it's guidance is flawed, for example, clinical trials are slow to the point of risking patients’ lives, and intellectual property rules threaten academic freedom. Voting to leave ensures flexible, organic institutions and pro-innovation regulations based on expert scientific advice, a system far more suited to the fast-moving world of the future.
Furthermore, staying in the EU forces UK universities to collaborate only with Europe and UK universities would do well to also engage more with Africa, Asia and the Americas than they currently do.
Staff & students
Leaving the EU would mean that UK universitis get access to a broader talent pool of students and faculty. The current visa policy means that the worst students in Europe get automatic access to UK education while it can be near impossible for, e.g. a brilliant Indian scholar to attend university in the UK. Outside the EU, the UK can control immigration to grant more visas for students and academics, with all nationalities treated equally, giving greater access for UK universities to talent from the rest of the world.
Even if we're not a member of the EU we can still have exchanges between students, in the same way as Norway and Switzerland currently do, and which we also have with universities in the US, Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Brazil and many others.
European collaboration in science was in place long before the current EU system, and some examples include CERN, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, the European Organisation for Research and Treatment of Cancer and the European Space Agency. As a world-leader in science and research, if we leave the EU we will still be a world-leader which other countries will want to collaborate with. It also means that we will be able to promote better research and direct our research to play to our strengths.