What would Brexit mean for UK universities?

We ask some of the HE sector’s experts…

Mike Hill, Chief Executive, Prospects

Cross border collaboration is essential for both higher education and business to thrive. Leaving the EU would be potentially disastrous for the graduate jobs market, both on a large multinational and more local SME level.

For business, being part of the EU enables access to this market and through trade deals with developed and developing economies. There will be reduction in UK investment as people move to invest in continental Europe, particularly Ireland. As we saw in the last recession, the graduate labour market is particularly vulnerable to issues in the financial market, which we will see if Frankfurt takes over as Europe’s financial capital. The ability to recruit overseas talent will also be quashed.

For higher education, the flow of talented young people into our system at an undergraduate and postgraduate level would be severely affected with a knock-on effect on the viability of some master’s courses, which rely heavily on overseas participants, as well as diminution of the skills and abilities of UK domiciled graduates. A Brexit will affect the ability of young people to work and learn in the EU. We will be slamming the door in the face of some of our most motivated and talented individuals.  The free movement of labour – properly regulated – is an immense benefit to our graduates as they move into and through the labour market.

I spend a lot of time liaising with similar organisations to mine overseas, and their governments, universities and businesses are much more interested in China, India, North America and Europe than they are in smaller, discrete economies.

Our children and grandchildren will rue the day if the UK votes against its long-term interests to leave Europe. My own children are 23 and 19, and I don’t want to see their long-term life chances shrunk by short-term considerations.

Mark Kirkham Associate Lecturer in Sociology and Business, University of Northampton 

British exit from the European Union will have a considerable impact on higher education in the UK. First and foremost, many Universities across the United Kingdom are at risk at losing direct funding from the European Union. The Horizon 2020 funding programme for UK universities is linked directly to EU membership. UK universities actually gain the greatest benefit from EU funding, compared to every other country in the union. 

In addition, the loss of income as a result of losing many thousands of the European students who will most likely not be able to afford an education in the UK could have a serious impact on student numbers. However, one of the main benefits is through the Erasmus scheme, where students go to study in the EU, which greatly enhances the knowledge base at UK universities and enhances student experience. 

Leaving the EU could have other important impacts on students in higher education. As a result of the Common Agricultural Policy put forward by the EU, students maintain a relatively low cost of living. The price of food is stable and costs less because of EU subsidy. For many poorer students, who have recently lost their bursaries, a hike in costs could have a detrimental impact on student wellbeing and how they perform at university. This will impact research quality and their ability to concentrate on their work; therefore it could impact their overall performance. Without a system that works effectively like the EU, which has a huge number of skilled practitioners within the institution, the impact on higher education could be very dramatic.

More than 200,000 UK students and 20,000 university staff have studied or worked at European universities under the Erasmus scheme

Professor Rebecca Bunting, Vice-Chancellor, Buckinghamshire New University

Universities in the UK have come out against Brexit. They fear that an exit will cut them off from EU research funding: the UK does very well from the EU in securing research funding, punching above its size. Inside Europe we are better able to collaborate with partners and to secure funding for education as well as research. We work in global contexts and risk isolation if we remove ourselves from influential networks and partnerships.

 And universities fear they will be cut off from staff and student mobility schemes such as the Erasmus exchange programme. 

In 2013/14 125,000 EU students were studying at UK universities: the UK is a very attractive destination for academic global talent, and that includes staff too. In the same year, 15% of the UK academic workforce was from the EU. So to lose any of that richness and opportunity would be devastating for UK higher education. There is also the risk that leaving Europe will give a message to non EU international students and universities that we are not ‘open for business’, not welcoming of international students, which is certainly not the case.

EU students make up approximately 5% of the UK student body

Nick Pearce, Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Institute for Policy Research (IPR), University of Bath

It is not hard to understand why the overwhelming majority of British universities want to stay in the European Union. British universities sweep up EU research grants, attract over 125,000 EU students every year, and recruit nearly one in seven of their academic staff from EU countries. Anybody who works or studies at a British university will know just how European they are: from students and researchers, to administrators and managers, cleaners and caterers. In turn, this helps make Britain a magnet for academics and students from across the globe and a leading country for science. 

Intellectual life is cosmopolitan and open. It shrivels and dies when it is restrained and encumbered. The free flow of students and academics within the European Union enriches academic research, scholarship and teaching. 

It enables the EU to nurture its intellectual richness and academic innovation. Eurosceptics like to compare the European Union with the late Ming and Qing dynasties in China: bureaucratic, centralised and sclerotic. It is difficult to tell whether that is more offensive to China or Europe, but it is certainly wide of the mark. Research and innovation flourish in the EU. Its universities – particularly those in the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia – are getting stronger internationally every year.

Universities are also bulwarks of the democratic public sphere. Authoritarian populism is on the rise across the world, in Europe as well as North America. 

Strong universities, in which academic thought and expression are free, nourish and protect democratic openness. European universities will be in a stronger position to help their societies resist any backsliding to authoritarianism if they remain open to the free flow of people and ideas from across the continent. Centuries ago, Europe gave birth to a Republic of Letters that profoundly shaped modern civilization. Britain should remain in the EU, not return its membership to sender. 

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