Universities have warned that a British exit from the European Union would be “potentially disastrous” for higher education and the wider research community, as I reported for University World News.

Without membership of the politico-economic union of 28 member states, Britain would not just lose access to billions of euros worth of research grants, but also the power to influence the European regulatory framework with an impact on UK research and higher education, says the UK HE International Unit.

Lucy Shackleton

Lucy Shackleton

Speaking to me for a feature on the implications for UK higher education and research of a British EU exit, Lucy Shackleton, European Policy Officer at the International Unit, said: “The UK would no longer benefit from the increased global influence and negotiating power that membership of a wider bloc of countries entails.

“This isolation would come at a time of increasing global competition in research and international mobility flows from countries like the US and China, as well as from emerging economies, and would risk damaging the competitiveness of the UK higher education sector and the country.”

The possibility of Britain’s withdrawal appeared to increase after Prime Minister David Cameron’s high-profile failure to stop Jean-Claude Juncker becoming the next President of the European Commission.

If re-elected in next year’s General Election, Cameron’s Conservative Party has pledged to wage a “long, tough fight” to reform the Brussels-based European Union before holding an ‘in-out’ referendum in 2017.

The European election results in May saw a rise in support for the UK Independence Party, or UKIP, which wants to leave the European Union and the generally pro-European Labour Party.

But Labour is under pressure to match Cameron’s pledge to hold a referendum and the avowedly pro-European Liberal Democrats, junior members of the current UK Coalition Government, saw their Members of the European Parliament, or MEPs, slump from ten to just one after the elections.

‘Potentially disastrous’

The prospect of withdrawing from the European Union fills many British vice-chancellors with dread. It was described as ‘potentially disastrous’ by several in the 2014 survey of UK university leaders conducted by PA Consulting for its 6th annual higher education report, titled Here Be Dragons.

The report said ‘greatly increased reliance of UK universities on competitive success in international markets for education and research has brought with it new risks and vulnerabilities.’

Leaving the EU was put alongside the danger of falling out with the Chinese government and restrictions on the flow of students to the UK as major concerns for British university leaders.

Universities UK, the umbrella group for British university vice-chancellors, launched its own campaign to underline the value of EU membership, particularly for higher education and research, during the run-up to the European elections in May.

£1.2 billion annually in European research funding

Part of the campaign saw Professor Sir Christopher Snowden, President of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of the University of Surrey, sign an open letter with 22 other British university leaders, published by The Times on 19 May, 2014. This said the UK benefits directly from £1.2 billion annually in European research funding.

Dame Julia Goodfellow

Dame Julia Goodfellow

Earlier Professor Dame Julia Goodfellow, vice-chancellor of the University of Kent, used Europe Day on 9 May to ‘celebrate peace and unity in Europe’ and speak out against the “many voices” calling for the EU withdrawal.

Goodfellow’s institution describes itself as ‘the UK’s European university’ and has satellite study centres in Brussels, Paris, Athens and Rome and around 20% of its staff coming from other EU countries.

Europe Day message

Her Europe Day message said: “Over 80% of the UK’s internationally co-authored papers are written with EU partners. The UK secures a disproportionate amount of EU research, development and innovation funding, over €6 billion – and every €1 of such funding has been calculated to increase the added value to industry by €13.

“The nature of EU research funding means that it complements and adds value to national structures, enabling projects individual member states could not undertake alone. And, because of the high reputation of UK researchers, we are able to influence the European agenda.

“The idea that we could outside the EU secure even a fraction of the money or influence is not viable. We have seen the effect on Swiss based researchers following their country’s referendum decision to restrict immigration from EU member states.”

The Swiss referendum

University World News reported on 11 April that Swiss voters narrowly voted in a referendum to restrict immigration to Switzerland, violating the principle of free movement of people – one of the key elements of the European Union.

This led the EU to suspend all current negotiations with Switzerland. The country is not a member of the Union, but did have a special arrangement to enable it to benefit from the Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 programmes for student mobility and research funding.

We reported that the EU made the free movement of people from new EU member state, Croatia, a condition for signing the Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 treaties, but after the referendum the Swiss government said it could not agree the expansion. It now seems unlikely that Switzerland will be able to part in both programmes in the next academic year.

University World News also reported (23 April) that Swiss universities were seeking to cushion the impacts of the referendum outcome on academic exchange.

The University of Basel was quoted as seeking intensive bilateral links outside Europe, including with the University of Cape Town in South Africa. And another top Swiss institution, Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich, or ETH Zürich, is looking to increase research and other academic cooperation with institutions in four Asian countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.

British higher education leaders are studying the implications of the Swiss referendum outcome closely, with Shackleton saying: “The Swiss example does demonstrate the potential instability of bilaterally negotiated access to EU funding programmes.”

Loss of global influence

The Russell Group, which represents 24 major research-intensive universities in the UK, is increasingly concerned about the loss of income and global influence if British voters heed calls to leave the European Union.

Giving evidence to a major government-led review of relationships between the UK and the European Union, it said: “EU funding streams are key to the continued growth of research excellence in the UK, and to innovation and the creation of economic value.

They are an irreplaceable source of funding for UK universities, and for research-intensive universities in particular.

“The EU provides a unique and highly competitive platform for international collaboration.”

Russell Group universities have 52,000 students and over 18,500 staff from other EU countries and nearly half of all UK students participating in the Erasmus mobility programme in 2012/13 were from Russell Group universities and their institutions hosted 63% of the UK’s Marie Curie researchers under EU’s research Framework Programme Seven, or FP7.

Balance of Competences

The UK Coalition Government launched its Balance of Competences Review between the UK and the European Union on 12 July 2012 and is looking at 32 areas, including Research & Development and Education & Training. The intention is to provide an analysis of what Britain’s membership of the EU means for the UK national interest and to deepen public and parliamentary understanding of the nature of the UK’s EU membership.

The Education & Training review is expected to report this autumn, but the Research & Development Balance of Competences was published earlier this year.

This said: “The UK does exceptionally well from the EU’s current seven-year research budget, Framework Programme 7 (FP7), receiving €6.1bn or 15.4% of the funds allocated to date, second only to Germany which has received 16.1%. This equates to a higher percentage of FP7 funding than either our share of EU Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or population; only the Netherlands does better on either of these measures.

“However, these impressive headline figures mask a division between higher education institutions, which attract 70.3% of the UK’s total, and businesses, which have been allocated just 18.6%. Small businesses receive 13.1% of UK funding, lower than the 14.6% allocated to SMEs across the Union as a whole.”

‘Campaign with business to stay in Europe’

Despite this 8 out 10 firms say the UK must stay in the EU, according to a survey by Britain’s leading business lobbying group, the CBI.

This has led to a call from Universities UK’s Assistant Director of Policy Chris Hale for British higher education to join forces with the CBI 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.

Europe watching

European higher education chiefs are reluctant to become embroiled in the UK’s ‘in-out’ debate and the European Commission didn’t contribute to the UK Balance of Competences Review.

But Lesley Wilson, Secretary General of the 850-member strong European University Association, or EUA, told University World News: “Universities UK recently underlined in an open letter the significant benefits that UK universities secure from the country’s membership of the European Union.

“Any change, therefore, in the current situation, would not be beneficial to UK universities and science organisations or their European partners given the present high levels of cooperation in higher education and research and the added value of these activities.

“European cooperation in higher education and research is set to grow further in the next six years given the increased funding available at European level for such joint activities which indicates once again the crucial role of HE and research in promoting Europe’s further growth.”

* For more information about EU membership and the impact on UK higher education, read Lucy Shackleton’s blog on the Universities UK website.

*A version of this article first appeared in University World News under the headline European Union exit ‘potentially disastrous’ for higher eduction on 11 July in Issue No:328

+ Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist and public relations consultant who regularly blogs about higher education for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ association, EUPRIO, and on his website. He was runner-up in the UK Education Journalism 2013 Awards for Outstanding Online Education Commentary.