UCL European Institute


The rights & responsibilities of the university sector in the EU referendum debate

03 August 2015, 12:00 am


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In this commentary, Lucy Shackleton of Universities UK outlines why UK universities have both the right and the responsibility to inform and influence the referendum debate. 
3 August 2015 
Lucy Shackleton

Today, Universities UK (UUK) is officially launching Universities for Europe, a campaign on behalf of the higher education sector to highlight how the European Union (EU) helps universities benefit individuals, the economy and society in the UK.*

Hosted by UCL, with speeches from Chukka Umunna MP, Rt Hon Damian Green MP, and Professor Dame Julia Goodfellow, the Universities for Europe launch signals UUK's commitment to playing a positive and proactive role in the national debate on the UK's relationship with the EU over the coming months.

At a time of domestic policy change and funding cuts in UK higher education, it is fair to ask: why should this be a priority. It is a priority because the question of whether or not we stay in the EU goes to the heart of British identity, prosperity and influence. It is a priority because the UK's membership of the European Union strengthens university research and education, benefitting everyone in the UK. As major employers and intellectual stakeholders, universities have both the right and the responsibility to inform and influence this debate.

First, universities can provide policy-makers and the public with academic insight and expertise on a whole range of the areas impacted by EU membership, from agricultural policy to competition law, from banking regulation to mobile phone tariffs. They can engage with their local communities to energise, inspire and encourage voter turnout. They can foster informed discussion in a debate that is too often dominated by emotion rather than evidence.

Second, universities can highlight the fundamental role that the EU plays in supporting them to pursue new knowledge; to drive innovation, employment and growth; and to educate and inspire the next generation. The EU helps universities contribute to the growth of local economies, by attracting European students and staff, helping to turn research ideas into products, services and companies and to provide skills and training to the workforce. It supports ground-breaking research in areas from cancer research to climate change, enabling researchers to combine talent, resources and infrastructure to achieve more together than they could alone. It transforms people's lives by giving them global opportunities, breaking down barriers between people and cultures in the process. This isn't about narrow, insular or self-serving arguments, it's about highlighting how much Europe does to make the UK's already excellent universities stronger, our economy more productive and our society more open. Strong universities benefit the British people.

Thirdly, universities can lead the charge in countering some of the arguments which seek to downplay the importance of the EU for UK universities and their positive impact. It has been argued by some that EU bureaucracy is stifling UK science. On the contrary, the EU is providing vital funding for important areas, enabling collaboration for more efficient, excellent and impactful research, and actually reducing red tape by providing a single framework for collaboration. It has been argued that the UK would be better off investing the money it puts into the EU budget for research funding nationally. This betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the necessity to collaborate in order to achieve scale, impact and global solutions to global problems. It has been suggested that UK universities would be better off forgetting Europe and focusing on partnering with emerging economies with soaring research budgets. The answer to that is we are not faced with a choice between Europe and the rest of the world. Indeed, the EU provides multiple opportunities to collaborate with partners globally, and enhances our visibility and influence in the world.

Ultimately, the challenge for both Universities for Europe and the nascent national campaign in support of EU membership, is to articulate what choice it is that the UK public will be making when polls open on referendum day. Do we want a UK that embraces or turns away from its leadership role in Europe, that plays a fundamental role in steering the development of the EU including European research and higher education policy, or that is content to take a gamble on negotiating access to programmes and a market over which it will have no influence? For those that want universities to maximise their positive contribution to society, the choice is whether UK universities are better off at the heart - or at the margins - of the world's single largest bloc of knowledge.