UNIVERSITIES UK, or UUK, has launched Universities for Europe, a campaign to highlight how the European Union helps universities support individuals, the economy and society in the UK, writes guest blogger Lucy Shackleton

UUK, the British national rectors’ conference, represents 133 British universities; and the country’s higher education institutions appear to be speaking with one voice in support of promoting the benefits for universities of the UK remaining part of the EU in the run-up to an ‘in or out’ referendum, promised by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron in 2016 or 2017.

But not everyone is happy to see universities join the fray. Paul Nuttall, a former lecturer at Liverpool Hope University and deputy leader of the UK Independence Party, or UKIP, was reported by Science Business as saying the university sector should not “embroil itself” in the EU referendum debate.

Here Lucy Shackleton from the UK HE International Unit explains why the campaign was launched and what it hopes to achieve:

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

Lucy Shackleton
Lucy Shackleton

At a time of domestic policy change and funding cuts in UK higher education, it is fair to ask: why should promoting the benefits of EU membership 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.

Foster informed discussion

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.

Not a narrow, insular argument

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.

Collaboration necessary to achieve scale

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.

Leadership role in Europe

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.

• Lucy Shackleton is Senior Policy Officer (Europe) at the UK HE International Unit. This is a slightly abridged and edited version of her original blog which is also on the EUPRIO website.

• The launch of Universities for Europe, was hosted by University College London with speeches from Labour MP Chukka Umunna, Conservative MP Damian Green and UUK president-elect and the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Kent Professor Dame Julia Goodfellow.

• For further information see: www.universitiesforeurope.com