Emran Mian looks at four arguments that British universities have so far mustered for staying in the EU – and says universities must engage further, detail by detail, with the Eurosceptic rebuttals to these arguments. Even in universities the support for staying in the EU is soft. There is still time for universities to construct better arguments.

A referendum on UK membership of the EU is around the corner. Polling evidence from the Higher Education Policy Institute suggests that 70% of university students will vote to stay in the EU and universities themselves are preparing to play a significant role in the campaign. Universities UK has launched a campaign website and is circulating fact sheets to its members to support the case for staying in. However, as the LSE Commission on the Future of Britain in Europe turns its attention to higher education and research, it should be mindful that the arguments being made in the sector are sometimes all too easy for those advocating an exit from the EU to rebut.

In this blog, I pick out four main arguments, based in turn on: research funding; research collaboration; staff mobility; and student mobility. My heart isn’t in this, but here is what the rebuttals might look like.

The first argument in favour of continued membership is that UK universities receive EU funding for research. Certainly they do and they wouldn’t get it if we left. As Universities UK astutely point out, the graphene research project at the University of Manchester got EU funding; and look at it now: it’s an important part of the Chancellor’s vision of the Northern Powerhouse. But the problem with this argument is simple: if the UK was outside the EU, and saving the net contribution it makes to the EU budget of over £10bn, then it could easily make up the difference.

Last year, the EU put about £700m of research funding into the UK. That is less than a tenth of our net contribution to the EU budget. Obviously there is a large risk that none of the saving from contributing to the EU makes its way back into research. But Brexit advocates certainly have the means to neutralise this argument by making a promise to that effect.

mortarboardsWill they vote – and do they want to stay in the EU? Photo: rawdonfox via a Flickr Creative Commons licence.

However, there is a second research-related argument for continued membership. It is based on the collaboration between UK universities and those in other EU member states. Again Universities UK have a fine example: they mention the EU-funded Ebola+ research programme, by which the Universities of Oxford, Stirling and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine are working with universities in 11 other EU countries. If the UK left the EU, then our universities would miss out on these opportunities for collaboration. Well, perhaps, except that there are Swiss universities that participate in the Ebola research programme.

The wider point here is that Brexit advocates are not necessarily committed to the UK turning its back on its European neighbours, and the businesses, universities and other civil society organisations therein. Outside the formal structure of the EU, we will nevertheless find other ways to collaborate, much as Switzerland, Norway and countries further afield have done. And this isn’t simply because we are close by and have a major research base of our own, it’s because of the institutional and personal relationships that have been established through past collaboration. The UK will not float off into a dark zone of the Atlantic if it leaves the EU; our phones, emails and airports will still work.

There are certainly risks from being outside the EU. The research funding going into Swiss universities was cut when Switzerland voted to restrict the free movement of EU citizens. So there would certainly be a quid pro quo if UK universities were to continue receiving EU funding. But no reason in principle why we couldn’t continue to partner with universities across the EU and to be funded to do so.

The next two arguments for resisting Brexit relate to mobility. First of all, staff mobility is important to our universities. Universities UK point out that 14% of academic staff in UK universities are nationals of other EU member states. But it is very unlikely that any Brexit advocate will want to send them all back. Usually Brexit advocates argue that what they want for EU migrants is the same ‘points-based’ approach to determining eligibility to work in the UK as applies to non-EU migrants. In other words, if there is a skills gap, or more liberally, if the best candidate is an immigrant, then he or she should have leave to work here.

This is easier said than done. The reality is that leaving the EU will almost certainly reduce the numbers of academic staff from elsewhere in the EU who want to and can work here. This is a problem. But the reduction will not be from 14% to zero. And, in the heat of a referendum campaign, let’s remember that this 14% figure might be put to other work: a Brexit advocate might argue that, if the UK leaves the EU, there are all these jobs in our universities that would become available to high-skilled UK citizens. Can we explain what’s wrong with that?

I’ve left the strongest argument that the HE sector can muster till last: the student trade. 6% of all students in UK universities are from elsewhere in the EU. That’s a lot of fee income. And, over the decades after their graduation, it’s a lot of soft power. Of course it’s more than that too. It’s an example of our open society. It changes us to meet, argue, learn from, befriend and fall in love with people from other parts of Europe. I believe that. I said right at the beginning: my heart isn’t in this task of rebutting the arguments for continued membership of the EU.

But here’s the trouble: a Brexit advocate can say that, as with labour mobility, student mobility will not reduce to zero if the UK leaves the EU. It’s just that it will be managed differently. For example, EU students will not have access to the same financial support as UK students. And that is for the best. We lose a lot of money by lending money to migrants. We could use some of these student finance savings to provide scholarships to the brightest and the best applicants from other European countries. Can we show why this won’t work? Or can we prove that UK students have not in any way been crowded out by EU students? Brexit, according to its advocates, might be a great opportunity for widening participation, if as much as 6% of total student numbers – and the finance associated with them – becomes newly available to UK applicants.

I’ll stop there. My heart is heavy. There is time for universities to construct better arguments. But we had better use it wisely. If we want to help the case for the UK to stay, then we will have to go further than repeating platitudes about the risks of Brexit and instead engage – detail after detail – with the arguments that its advocates will make.

One final disheartening fact: while 70% of students say that they would vote to stay in the EU, a third of those surveyed by the Higher Education Policy Institute said they had given the issue little or no thought, and a similar proportion said their views were not strongly held. Unsurprisingly therefore, only around a half said that they would definitely vote in the referendum. In other words, even in universities the support for staying in the EU is soft. The task isn’t just to meet the arguments for Brexit but to reinforce and mobilise the support for staying in.

This piece originally appeared on the LSE Brexit Blog. An earlier version of this post appeared at WonkHE.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Impact blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our Comments Policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

About the Author

Emran Mian is the Director of the Social Market Foundation. He is the author of two books, Send In The Idiots (Bloomsbury) and The Banker’s Daughter (Harvill Secker). Until September 2013, he was a civil servant. His previous roles include policy responsibility for constitutional reform; Secretary to the Browne Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance; Director of Strategy at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and, most recently, Director responsible for the Cabinet Office and Number 10 Business Partnerships team and working with Government Non-Executives.

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