In the run-up to elections for new European Parliament speculation was rife that Britain might be heading for the European Union exit door. But one group has not been afraid to pin their pro-European credentials firmly to the mast – and that’s the assembled ranks of UK universities, as NIC MITCHELL explains.

AS WITH much of Europe, disillusionment with the way mainstream politicians handled the economic recession, banking crisis and much else has transformed itself into growing support for nationalistic, and so-called ‘anti-establishment’ parties.

In Britain, this has manifested itself with the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) – which is policy-light except for wanting out of the European Union.

Afraid to say anything nice about Europe

During the European election campaign, it almost felt as if mainstream British politicians, with the exception of the Lib Dems, were afraid to say anything too nice about Europe for fear of scaring off voters to the UKIP camp.

However, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Kent (where EUPRIO held its annual conference last year) had no such qualms. She used Europe Day (May 9) to issue a powerful pro-European message in which she clearly spelled out the benefits of EU membership for Britain’s universities.

UK’s European university

Professor Dame Julia Goodfellow presides over an institution that proudly calls itself ‘the UK’s European university’ – with satellite study centres in Brussels, Paris, Athens and Rome and around 20% of staff coming from other EU countries.

Referring to the European Union directly, she emphasised its contribution to Europe’s post war stability and the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, saying: “Disputes that in the past might have led to diplomatic broadsides or worse are now settled in committee rooms in Brussels or Strasbourg.”

Her message described the European Union as ‘a common economic space within which talent can move freely’’.

After highlighting benefits, including access to EU research, development and innovation funding and mobility programmes, she warned against an ‘in-out’ referendum based on restricted immigration from EU member states; and pointed to the impact such a vote was already having on Swiss researchers.

Not a lone voice

Dame Julia is far from a lone voice. On 19 May, The Times published a letter signed by 23 UK university vice-chancellors in which they declared: “As university leaders, we are committed to ensuring that these benefits of EU membership to the British people and to our universities are properly understood, and that our voices are heard in the debate about EU reform.”

The British higher education for case for Europe was also the title of a recent blog by Chris Hale, Assistant Director of Policy at Universities UK, which said it was still unclear what to expect from the rise of UKIP in the European polls and what it will mean for higher education.

Much depends on general election

“Much will depend on the outcomes of the general election next year and the outcomes of any ‘in/out’ referendum should that materialise in 2017” – a reference to a pledge by current Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron should he be re-elected.

Hale added: “Now the UK higher education sector is clear about where it stands, we need to join forces with the CBI (Confederation of British Industry) and others and use the next three years to campaign strongly and develop the evidence base about the economic and wider benefits of EU membership.”

Expect many more positive words about Europe, and the EU, from British higher leaders in the year to come – and beyond.

* This blog first appeared on the EUPRIO website.
Links giving a taste of what UK higher education leaders and commentators are already saying about UK HE and the EU.

Kent v-c warns of dangers to HE of leaving EU
Times Higher Education 10 May 2014.

Erasmus+ will support 250,000 Brits to study abroad University World News 2 May 2014 Issue No:318

* This blog first appeared on the EUPRIO website.